After last year's state tournament run that saw the Clarke softball team finish runner-up in Class 3A, the Lady Indians now know what to expect at the state tournament.
Head coach Lindsay Diehl says that, and especially the experience of playing in the nerve-wracking state title game last year, will help the Lady Indians this year.
"Other coaches kept commenting about how loose they were playing like they'd been there before, but they hadn't," Diehl said about her team. "Having been in that game, that championsip game, and being nervous, but after the fact realizing it was just another game that you have to go out and play, that's going to help us out a lot."
Ultimately, the goal is to return to the Class 3A state championship game on July 25.
But first, Clarke (24-8) must go through Spirit Lake (23-8) in the opening round. That game is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday at Harlan Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge.
Spirit Lake enters the state tournament opener having won its last eight games and 13 of its last 16.
Diehl says she feels confident her team has played a tougher schedule this season, though, which should leave her team more prepared.
"You can't ever count out a team that's at the state tournament, though," Diehl said. "They're there for a reason. But I feel the schedule we've played, compared to the schedule they've played, ours was definitely a tougher road."
Spirit Lake is led by sophomore pitcher Bailee Newman, who does just about everything for the Indians.
Newman bats .414 with nine home runs and 36 runs batted in. She has also swiped 17 bases in 19 tries.
In the pitching circle, Newman is 20-6 with a 1.98 earned run average in 162 2/3 innings pitched. She has struck out 150 batters and opponents hit .237 against her.
"As soon as I looked at them, I thought of ADM," Diehl said. "I felt like ADM was a one-woman show with their pitcher. Same way with her (Newman), she's been a big hitter for them with big strikeout totals.
"I like a team that's solely basing its success on a couple of kids performing. If we can figure out how to shut her down, I feel good about our chances."
On the other side, Newman will have to figure out a way to shut down a balanced Clarke offensive attack.
Six Clarke batters hit .300 or better, while nine batters have at least 10 runs batted in.
And then there's the returning Class 3A Pitcher of the Year in Libby Bemis, that Spirit Lake will have to contend with.
Bemis enters Monday's contest with a 23-3 record, sporting a 1.15 earned run average in 165 innings. Opponents hit just .147 against her and she has recorded 218 strikeouts.
Bemis is one of six seniors on the Clarke team. Diehl says she feels confident going back to the state tournament with her group of seniors.
Spirit Lake has just two seniors on its team, while the majority of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores.
"They're very young," Diehl said. "When I looked them up, to know they're a young group of kids, also made me feel a little bit better. When I listen to Pat Murphy and he says you have to experience it to experience it to experience it, we have that upper edge. These kids are young. We still have some young kids, but I really hope having this platoon of seniors going up there is going to play in our favor."
Now that she's had a couple of days to let it sink in that her team is headed back to the state tournament, Diehl said it's a surreal feeling.
"All season, even starting the day after we got back from the state tournament (last year), our mission was to get back up there and hopefully get ourselves in a position where we can be playing for a state title again," Diehl said.
After going through Monday's 4-3 comeback win over ADM in the regional final, Diehl said some of the pressure may be off her team now.
"I feel like they seem really relaxed and kind of relieved to get through that game," she said. "Maybe now a little bit of the pressure is off. The pressure was to get there and that's what they were so uptight about all season, was getting back there."
That fighting spirit the Lady Indians showed, both on Monday and in last year's regional final win over West Burlington Notre Dame, should serve as a lesson to the other teams in the Class 3A state tournament.
"I'm really pleased with the way the kids found a way to win," Diehl said. "Just that experience on Monday night is making me feel better, and I know it will make the kids feel better.
"We've talked about this for the five years I've been here —áno matter what the score is, what inning it is, where we're at in the lineup, that we're going to find a way to get runners in scoring position and get runs in. Hopefully that sends a message to our opponents, too; that you can't count us out. We're going to keep coming at it for seven innings."