Prairie knocks off No. 1 Kennedy

Softball: Kuch homers, Halvorson and defense sparkle for Hawks

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CEDAR RAPIDS — There was no banner with which to celebrate. An ice bath certainly sufficed.

Lauren Kuch homered, and Cedar Rapids Prairie’s defense varied from spotless to spectacular in backing up Natalie Halvorson’s four-hitter as the Hawks upset top-rated Cedar Rapids Kennedy, 2-1, in a Class 5A regional-final softball game Tuesday night at Kennedy High School.

“Last time we made it (to the state tournament), I was in eighth grade,” said Halvorson, now a junior. “It had been two years too long.”

Prairie (26-14) will face second-ranked West Des Moines Valley in a first-round game Monday at the Rogers Sports Complex, Fort Dodge.

The Hawks made the routine plays behind Halvorson (18-8). And they made the difficult ones look easy.

“That’s the best defense we’ve played all year,” Kuch said. “If we hadn’t made those plays, it may have been a different game.”

The Cougars (37-5) entered the game with a .430 team batting average, and scored 7.8 runs per game. But Halvorson and the Hawks shut them down.

“I knew they were going to make plays behind me,” Halvorson said. “I had confidence in them. I just had to make sure I stayed relaxed.”

Kuch’s 10th home run of the season, a towering solo shot just inside the left-field foul pole, broke the ice in the top of the third.

It came with one out and was the first pitch of the at-bat.

“I had struck out the first time up, and (Kennedy’s) Jenna (Schwartzhoff) is a great pitcher,” Kuch said. “I was just looking for my pitch — an inside pitch — and that was the one.”

Prairie extended the margin to 2-0 in the fifth on a Kennedy error, the only one of the game for either team.

Halvorson didn’t allow a runner past second base until the bottom of the sixth, when Ashley Hamilton singled with two outs and Paige Timmerman followed with an RBI double to right-center field.

But the Cougars went down in order in the seventh, setting off an orange and black celebration.

The jubilant Hawks assembled for a team picture. They were disappointed when they learned there was no regional-championship pennant to clutch, but that subsided when some of the Hawks chased down Coach Joe Yegge with an ice bucket.

“Our kids are resilient,” Yegge said. “The last couple weeks, they really believed. They turned in their best game (Saturday against Burlington), their best game until tonight.”

Kennedy’s season ended short of Fort Dodge, but it was a remarkable summer. The Cougars won their first MVC divisional title in 20 years.

“That’s regional softball,” Cougars Coach Dan Gratz said. “(Halvorson) pitched a great game, and their defense picked them up big-time.

“We’ve turned this program around. I feel bad for our three seniors, but this program is going to be here for a long time.”

CEDAR RAPIDS PRAIRIE 2, CEDAR RAPIDS KENNEDY 1

Class 5A Regional Final, at C.R. Kennedy

C.R. Prairie 001 010 0 — 2 4 0

C.R. Kennedy 000 001 0 — 1 4 1

Natalie Halvorson and Neila Bell. Jenna Schwartzhoff, Ashley Winterowd (5) and Megan Weber. W — Halvorson (18-8). L — Schwartzhoff (16-4). HR — CRP: Lauren Kuch (10).

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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