Small College Sports

Coe softball overcomes early-season adversity to capture Iowa Conference title

Kohawks host IIAC softball tournament Friday and Saturday

Coe's Haley Jones is congratulated for her solo home run as she steps on home plate in a game against Cornell at Busse Field in Cedar Rapids on March 28, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Coe's Haley Jones is congratulated for her solo home run as she steps on home plate in a game against Cornell at Busse Field in Cedar Rapids on March 28, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Coe Coach Diane Meyer had some major questions when her softball team returned from early-season competition in Arizona.

The Kohawks were plagued by injuries to key players. They had given up runs in a charitable fashion, allowing double digits in five games of a 4-8 start. The team hadn’t established its identity, yet.

The answers came sooner than later. Coe capped the Arizona trip with four straight victories and beat rival Cornell. The defining moments came from two Iowa Conference doubleheaders.

Coe split with conference power Central, rebounding from a tough opening loss to win a 7-5 nine-inning thriller thanks to a three-run home run by Haley Jones. The Kohawks followed with a sweep of Nebraska Wesleyan, the league leader at the time, erasing three separate deficits for a 4-3 victory in 12 innings behind a complete game from pitcher Alyssa Olson.

“These kids have never quit fighting and believing in themselves,” Meyer said. “The way they have played in those tough conference games has given them more confidence. They are playing very confidently, right now.”

The timing could not be better. The Kohawks have gone 21-3 since returning to Iowa, capturing the regular-season conference crown and are set to host the IIAC tournament at Clark Field, starting Friday at 2 p.m. Top-seeded Coe opens competition Saturday against the winner of No. 4 Nebraska Wesleyan and No. 5 Loras.

“We put on a pretty good show and I’m just excited we have the opportunity to showcase our kids here at home,” Meyer said. “It will be a special day for us.”

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The season has included its share of adversity. The Kohawks resembled a MASH unit with early injuries to four regulars, including 2017 all-conference performers Jones, Olson and Madi Miller.

Olson was hampered by a shoulder injury, Jones hurt her elbow and Miller suffered from a bad ankle. The junior trio missed almost 16 games apiece before returning to the Coe lineup.

The Kohawks (25-11) rallied around their teammates, filling in as they tried to get stronger to return from rehab.

“A lot of people have stepped up while we were injured and then when we came back, everybody came together, collectively, as a team,” Jones said. “It’s why we’re in the spot we are now.”

Olson said postponements from unplayable spring weather helped the Kohawks mend and get everyone back in the lineup. The predicament helped teach them some important lessons.

“I think it was good for the team to learn how to fight and persevere together,” Olson said. “I think having those moments in Arizona where we had to figure out how to go about it in a different way than we normally would helped strengthen our team.”

Players utilized their time off the field to gain a new perspective. They observed from the dugout, sharing their information with teammates and helping with positioning. It made them better once they got back on the field as well.

“I think it was interesting to be on the different side,” Miller said. “I saw some things, personally, I needed to do better, getting extra base hits and be a little more aggressive.”

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Olson has managed to produce another solid season, going 10-4 with three saves and a 2.75 earned-run average. Olson has 108 strikeouts in 91 2/3 innings. She has been sidelined by injury in the past, but replaced frustration with motivation to get back in the circle.

“It was definitely that mountain I had to climb and get through that, knowing I could get to the other side,” Olson said. “I knew I didn’t have to do all of it. My team was back there for a reason. They always had my back the whole time. I think they’ve been super helpful.”

Jones has responded well in just 22 games. She has 36 hits, which is third behind Allie O’Brien (51) and Megan Weber (44), who have played in all 36 games this season. Jones is hitting .486 with five home runs, four doubles, two triples and 16 RBIs.

She has been a key part of Coe’s offense that ranks third in the IIAC in batting average (. 331), hits (336) and runs (220).

“I just tried my hardest to work, starting with my offseason,” Jones said. “It was all about getting better and stronger.

“Of course, when I got hurt in the second game I couldn’t believe it. ... My first game back I just told myself not to feel any pressure. Just go out there and hit before I was injured. Just keep working hard every day with my team and succeed as a team.”

The adversity challenged the Kohawks. It allowed other players to gain experience. Coe might be a little deeper because of it. One thing is certain, the Kohawks will be tested for the postseason.

“I think it allowed a lot of our teammates to get some opportunities,” Miller said. “That really helped them. They are comfortable in situations.”

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Coe’s conclusion to the regular season was as impressive as the moments that led up to it.

The Kohawks closed with an eight-game win streak and topped highly-touted Luther, 1-0 and 8-0, in Decorah to finish with a 13-3 conference mark. They swept the Norse for the first time since 2011.

“It’s still a great feeling,” said Jones, whose fifth-inning solo home run decided the opener against Luther. “It still gives me butterflies, thinking about it. It definitely boosted this team up after winning the conference and being able to host this weekend.”

The Kohawks will enjoy the comforts of home, being able to stay to their regular routine, sleep in their own beds and avoid multiple-hour bus trips. Coe is unbeaten at home this season, recording an 8-0 mark at Clark Field.

“We are so confident and comfortable on our field,” Olson said. “Playing here at home, I think, is a huge advantage for us. We know our field. We know how it plays. We know all the nooks and crannies.”

Iowa Conference Softball Tournament

At Clark Field, Cedar Rapids

Friday

2 p.m. — No. 4 Nebraska Wesleyan vs. No. 5 Loras

4:30 p.m. — No. 3 Luther vs. No. 6 Simpson

Saturday

11 a.m. — No. 1 Coe vs. Nebraska Wesleyan/Loras Winner

1:30 p.m. — No. 2 Central vs. Luther/Simpson Winner

4 p.m. — Championship

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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