TRURO — Two years ago, Interstate 35's young team powered into state feeling good powered on the heels of a seven-game win streak before losing three straight games to bow out of Fort Dodge without a win.
A year ago at this time, the Roadrunners took Van Meter to its limits, as the Roadrunners held a two-run sixth-inning lead over the eventual state champs in the opening round of the tournament before losing 5-4. Interstate 35 won its next two games in strong fashion over the likes of Durant-Bennett, and North Union, both qualifiers for the 2017 state tournament.
Whether I-35 squares off with those foes again is yet to be seen, but the second-seeded Roadrunners would love the chance if it meant appearing in Thursday's showcase: a state title game.
Interstate 35 returns as much power, experience, and one of the best hurlers in the state in the program's third consecutive trip to the grandest stage of Iowa High School softball.
The Roadrunners are up to the challenge once again.
“Our expectations don’t really change. Something we’ve talked about for 26 years is we go out on the field and we expect to win," Interstate 35 coach Tim Bogs said.
First to stand in the team's way is Central Springs, a program with which Interstate 35 is at least somewhat familiar.
The two programs squared off in the seventh-place game of the 2015 state tournament, as then eighth-grade pitcher Hannah Ausenhus held the Roadrunners to two runs in Central Springs' 6-2 win.
Monday at 3:30 p.m., Interstate 35 squares off with the Panthers again, and likely the same pitcher in Ausenhus, who owns a 28-4 record this season with a 1.38 ERA, 189 strikeouts and a .187 opponents batting average.
Considering the Roadrunners own the best slugging percentage in Class 2A at .603, the second best batting average at .392, the third most doubles in the class with 82, and the best on base percentage in the class at .478, they're not exactly worried.
Five of Interstate 35's everyday players hit above .400 and six have at least 25 RBIs. Cleanup hitter Josie Wickett and leadoff batter Lilly Miller hit at over a .500 clip.
Seniors Wickett, Slye Richardson, Carlyn Stanley, Shai Major and Riley Morris, lead the Roadrunners into battle with extensive state experience. Cheyenne Hiatt also adds to that experience.
Sophomores Kate Stanley and Miller have had their fun share at bashing softballs this summer as well and return having played twice at state already.
“I like how we’ve been playing. Early in the year, maybe like four or five kids were hitting," Bogs said, referring to the 15-5 win over Van Meter and 7-0 win over Treynor. "The other night, up and down through the lineup, one through nine, we put the bat on the ball and everybody did something good with the bat and that’s the key.”
Monday's clash with Central Springs is destined to stir up drama.
Bogs knows his team needs to follow a strict approach at the plate, and shrinking the zone is the team's best chance to get the pitches it wants to get ahold of.
“You’ve got to get ahead in the count and not swing at anything above our hands," Bogs said.
The Panthers are far from slouches, as they own the second-best on base percentage at .476 and slug at a powerful rate as well.
The hard-throwing Ausenhus is just one potential foe.
Interstate returns to Fort Dodge with all-state pitcher Carlyn Stanley in her last go-around.
The Roadrunners know any time they run Stanley out to the circle, they have a strong chance of winning if they support their pitcher with early runs.
“Carlyn's been throwing well almost all year. If we can get out and score a few runs early, that takes a little bit of pressure off her throwing the ball and off our defense. That’d be a big key to the game," Bogs said.
Durant returns as the defending state champion with a 31-7 record. On the opposite side of the bracket, Interstate 35 will only play Durant should both lose their first two games or if both win their first game and lose their second game.
The Roadrunners defeated Durant 6-5 at state last year and fell to Durant 6-4 in 2015.
Win or lose, Interstate 35 will play either Waterloo Columbus (34-5) or Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont (30-8). A game one win means a 5 p.m. game Thursday. Another win in the semifinals means a trip to the title game at 4:55 p.m. Friday.
"I don’t think it matters who we play," Bogs said. As long as we go out and play like I-35, we’re in pretty good shape.”