Nicole Yoder has seen her batting average spike by more than 100 points since last season. She has more extra-base hits, RBIs and stolen bases this summer than she's had in any previous year of her high school career.

The numbers illustrate just a sliver of the importance Yoder has had for the top-ranked Davenport Assumption softball team.

"Nicole is that barrier that keeps us from getting too distracted or too unfocused," Assumption coach Ron Ferrill said. "She's the best combination of a good and fun personality but also the voice of reason to bring the team back into focus."

Yoder, one of seven seniors on the team, has started more games than any player on Assumption's roster.

During her career, Assumption has posted 193 wins versus 17 defeats. She has been integral in three Mississippi Athletic Conference titles, played in three Class 3A state championship games and eyes a third consecutive state crown this week at Harlan Rogers Park in Fort Dodge.

When asked where she's made the most growth since that eighth-grade season when she was called up to varsity to replace an injured Kaitlyn Andresen, Yoder does not mention hitting, defense or baserunning.

"I've learned how to be a good teammate," Yoder said. "People tend to overlook that, but we've always put a really big emphasis on being a good teammate and being there for each other. That's what makes us successful."

Leadership has not been a concern for Ferrill's team during this run. He has plenty of vocal players in this senior class with Yoder, outfielder Lea Nelson and pitcher Allie Timmons.

Yoder brings another dimension. She can lighten the mood with a goofy joke or lend a hand of encouragement to a teammate after getting chastised by a coach.

"When you're in a bad mood, Nicole is the one there to help you out," catcher Anna Wohlers said. "When you miss a ground ball or don't get that hit, she's always like, 'Hey, get it next time.' She's always got her head in the game and keeps our heads high.

"Ever since I came here as an eighth-grader, I saw Nicole as a leader."

Like many former Assumption players did for Yoder, she has eased the learning curve for the underclassmen.

"She's very vocal, and she's an easy person to approach," third baseman Carlie Sammon said. "She's just a huge friend to me, on and off the field."

Softball is Yoder's love.

She has been passionate about the sport since her parents put her into T-ball at age 5 or 6. She dabbled with other activities, but the shortstop always came back to softball.

"I don't think I've ever met anybody else that has a better work ethic than Nicole," Timmons said. "She's so dedicated to the sport and team whether it is morning lifting or open gyms. She comes to practice with a smile on her face and ready to work."

Yoder has been steady throughout her career.

She has hit over .300 in each of her five seasons, driven in more than 20 runs each of the past four years and accumulated 224 career hits.

This season has been her best yet.

Yoder has raised her average from .319 to .429. She's gone from five doubles to 12. She's gone from 22 RBIs to 37. She's gone from hitting in the lower half of the Knights' lineup to the No. 3 hole.

"She's become very clutch," Ferrill said. "She's always had the potential, but she's always had a little bit of self doubt in the back of her mind.

"I don't know if it is the maturity of being a senior, being a year older or a year wiser, but she's swinging much more fearlessly and driving through the ball."

Defense was Yoder's ticket to playing time early. She played third base, shortstop and second base and even a game in the outfield as an eighth grader. 

Since her freshman season, she has been entrenched at shortstop.

"You're not going to find many shortstops as smooth as she is," Ferrill said.

But for Yoder to have a chance to play at the collegiate level, she knew her offense had to improve.

It became a focal point in the offseason. She's reaping the benefits.

"I'm more confident this year knowing it is is my senior year," she said. "I went out and said, 'It will be what it is,' and it has worked out for the best."

Yoder and Timmons will be teammates beyond this season. They will continue their softball careers at Iowa and be roommates this fall.

"Our bond has grown tremendously," Timmons said. "Even last year, we didn't have the bond we have now.

"If you can have somebody like Nicole Yoder on your team, that's exactly what you want. She's just a really good leader."

Assumption begins its quest to become the sixth Iowa program in any class to claim three straight softball titles at 7 p.m. Monday against unranked Algona (17-10) in a quarterfinal contest.

The Knights have been ranked No. 1 since the preseason and are making their fourth straight trip to Fort Dodge.

"It has become the norm," Sammon said. "It is like a second home at this point for high school softball."

Still, the Knights understand that doesn't guarantee success.

"We need to control our emotions," Yoder said. "For anyone playing there, whether it is the first time or fourth time, it can be nerve-racking. We just have to realize this is the moment we've been waiting for and working toward the whole season."

And for seven seniors who have been instrumental in changing the course of Assumption's program from above-average to elite, there would be no better conclusion than another championship coronation.

"It is a dream for everyone to get a state championship, and we've been blessed to do it two times, but it'd be awesome for us seniors to leave the program on a high note," Timmons said. "It'd make it extra special."

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Sports Editor

Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.