116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
FORT DODGE — A number of objects were spotted flying above the Iowa Central Field fence at the Rogers Sports Complex on Wednesday afternoon.
A canopy, then an umbrella floating in the sky were certainly unusual sights, but it was the softballs soaring over the fence that made North Linn’s 8-5 win over Central Springs in a Class 2A state semifinal especially memorable.
“I’ll remember that game for a long time,” North Linn junior third-baseman Jill Smith said.
Smith and Skylar Benesh homered for the Lynx (41-6), who will face No. 7 Earlham in the state final at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The Cardinals knocked off No. 1 Wilton 9-6 Wednesday.
It’s the third-straight title-game appearance for North Linn, the 2019 champion and 2020 runner-up.
“This specific group, while we have really good pitching, they do it with hitting the ball, running the bases, power and speed,” said North Linn first-year coach Chad Spore, whose team ranks second in all classes with 45 home runs. “But they’re also, they keep so positive all the time.”
That was an important characteristic in the top of the seventh.
Emme Dietrich brought the Panthers (30-7) within three with a solo shot to center. Later, Madisyn Kelley came to the plate as the tying run after drilling two-run homers in each of her previous two at-bats to cut the lead to 3-2 and 5-4.
Deja vu seemed like a possibility when Kelley drove a pitch deep over the left-field fence. But it drifted foul.
Spore stuck to his principles, only briefly considering loading the bases. North Linn pitcher Ellie Flanagan rewarded that decision by striking out Kelley swinging on the next offering with what Spore called “her best riseball of the day.”
“She missed that pitch, but she knows that, ‘hey, if I miss it, Coach, come back to me because I’ve got the feel. I know how I need to spin the next one,’” Spore said.
The Lynx led from the first inning on and just about every added run turned out to be important.
They responded to Kelley’s sixth-inning blast with three of their own in the bottom half, this time with small ball — bunt single, hit-by-pitch, single, single, bunt single. Livvie Rauch, Benesh and Kaitlyn Sommerfelt delivered the RBIs.
Rauch hit a home run of her own in the third — well, of the little-league variety. She tripled to right and scored on a throwing error. The next batter, Benesh, drove one over the fence for her 2A-leading 14th long ball and an early 3-0 lead.
“Usually when we get a couple bats rolling, the whole lineup — it’s like a spark. We all start hitting really well,” said Benesh, a dynamic freshman shortstop. “It just carries throughout the lineup.”
Benesh scored the game’s first run on a Smith sacrifice fly after leading off with a double. Both players were in the starting lineup of last year’s 6-1 title-game loss to Ogden and are proud to help bring North Linn back for more.
“It’s been a really big goal for us this year, especially since we’ve been proving a lot of people wrong,” Smith said. “Not a lot of people thought we’d be here right now. Chad’s believed in us along the way. We’ve all bought into the process and now we’re here.”