DECORAH — Luther Coach Renae Hartl needed some time to feel the pulse of this year’s team.
The Norse returned plenty of talent from last season, but had a little different mindset than the previous few seasons. They did, however, share some traits with the 2013 team, according to Hartl following Luther’s third straight Iowa Conference softball tournament title.
“They do know how to win,” Hartl said. “They love the game. They work incredibly hard.
“They had a similar personality as in 2013 and I really enjoyed that team.”
The Norse will attempt to add to the similarities of that squad and earn a berth to the NCAA Division III World Series. Luther will host seventh-ranked St. Thomas (Minn.) in a best-of-3 series in a Super Regional at Betty A. Hoff Field, beginning Friday at 4 p.m. The second game is set for Saturday at 1 p.m., followed by a third game, if needed.
Luther swept all three regional games and has won six straight, including all three IIAC tournament games. The No. 16-ranked Norse (38-8) turned things around after dropping four of their final six regular-season contests.
“We’re playing relaxed but we’re also being super aggressive,” said Luther pitcher Samantha Bratland, who was named Most Outstanding Player at the regional tournament, also held in Decorah. “I think that’s the difference between before and now. Before I think we put pressure on ourselves that wasn’t needed and now we’re really just going after it and playing relaxed, loose and having fun.”
Bratland has been a big part of the Norse success, posting a 24-4 mark. She has thrown four shutouts in six postseason starts, allowing just four total runs over the stretch. Hartl said assistant coaches and catcher Addy Pender have helped Bratland’s progress this season.
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“She’s pitching some great ball right now,” Hartl said. “She’s definitely coming into her own, trusting the different pitches that she has and going with all of them, instead of relying on a couple like she has in other seasons.
“I’m really proud of her for developing those pitches and then believing in them.”
The Norse defense has been solid behind the junior right-hander from Spring Grove, Minn. The final play to close out the regional championship was a perfect example. A hard shot ricocheted off the glove of Blake Banowetz into the hands of first-team all-Midwest region shortstop Anna Strien, who gunned it to first for the last out and second trip to the Super Regionals since the format was introduced in 2015.
Luther can provide plenty of offensive support, hitting .333 as a team and tallying 282 runs this season. The Norse have scored 41 runs in six postseason games, ending three early by the eight-run rule.
“Obviously, Samantha and the defense are doing great,” Luther designated hitter and former Cedar Rapids Kennedy prep Paige Timmerman said. “I think the lineup is connecting. We’re finding a way to get runs in and that’s what you have to do.”
St. Thomas is 38-6 this season. The series winner will advance to the eight-team field of the NCAA D-III World Series May 24-29 at Oklahoma City.
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