FORT DODGE — All week long, Clarke senior pitcher Libby Bemis said “second place isn’t an option.”
After losing last year’s Class 3A state title game to Bondurant-Farrar by a score of 6-3, the Lady Indians were hungry for a state championship this year.
Clarke took control early with a 6-1 lead over the Lady Jays in a rematch of last year’s title game, but saw Bondurant-Farrar chip away at that lead until eventually tying the score at 6-6 in the top of the seventh inning.
But it took only one swing of the bat from senior Carley Robins in the bottom of the seventh inning to give Clarke its second state softball championship, and first since 1995.
Facing a 2-2 count, Robins smoked a Keely Bycroft pitch over the left field fence, clearing the bleachers, sending the Clarke dugout and cheering section into a frenzy.
The dugout quickly rushed onto the field and awaited a grinning Robins at home plate, as the Lady Indians prevailed 7-6.
“I always say to the kids, they talk about hitting a home run now,” Clarke head coach Lindsay Diehl said. “I always say, ‘No. Get a base hit. If you get a base hit, every now and then, it’s going to go over the fence.’
“I did picture Carley hitting that ball over the fence and said a little prayer,” she continued. “I thought if anybody’s going to do it, she’s going to do it. The way she’s performed in the times we’ve been up here at the state tournament, that’s just what she does. She hits the long ball when it matters.”
Home run hitter
The big fly was the fifth home run Robins has hit at the state softball tournament in six games over the past two seasons.
Robins broke the Class 3A record last year with three home runs in a single tournament.
But, she says, she wasn’t looking for a home run when she stepped to the plate in the seventh inning.
“I wasn’t trying to hit it, I just wanted to get at least a base hit,” Robins said. “I hit one Monday, so I was like, ‘I’m probably not going to hit another one.’”
But her teammates believed in her. Senior first baseman Devon Carson even called the home run from the dugout.
Then, Bycroft grooved a pitch over the inside half of the plate and Robins took advantage.
“I’ve never ran around the bases that fast in my entire life!” Robins said. “I didn’t cry. I didn’t know what to do. I was just running.”
Add the Robins home run to the list of noteworthy events in Clarke softball the past two years.
There’s the walkoff base hits in regional finals two years in a row to send the Lady Indians to the state tournament, last year’s slugfest against New Hampton in the semifinals, Libby Bemis’ perfect game against Spirit Lake in this year’s state tournament opener.
And now there’s the Robins home run that brings Clarke a Class 3A state championship.
“I definitely did not think it was going to be a walkoff home run,” Robins said. “I thought we were going to get out of it in the top of that inning. But that’s probably the best way to go out, I guess, on a walkoff.”
Bondurant-Farrar had cut Clarke’s lead to 6-4 after the fifth inning. Still, the Lady Indians cruised along.
Until the seventh inning.
Bemis induced a pair of groundouts to start the inning, putting Clarke just one out away from the state championship.
But Emily Wilson put a 3-2 pitch into center field for a single. Then Bycroft laced a double to right field, scoring Wilson.
Bycroft was down to her last strike in the at-bat, and then popped a foul down the third base line. Catcher Lexy Carson and third baseman Sara Andrew both went for the ball. Carson had it in her glove, but the two collided and the ball popped loose, giving Bondurant-Farrar new life.
“I want kids to go 100 percent and both of them were going 100 percent for that ball, so you can’t fault a kid for going hard,” Diehl said. “That’s why communication is such an important part of this game.”
Bemis once again found herself one strike away from ending the game, but this time Annika Ekstam hit a single into right field, tying the game. The Lady Indians finally got out of the inning on a comebacker to the mound.
“I knew to just stay calm and throw my pitches,” Bemis said. “They’re good hitters and it was right in the middle of their lineup. I threw my pitches and they hit the ball, so I can’t really do anything about it. What happens, happens and it happens for a reason.”
One key difference in the game came on defense.
Clarke committed just one error in the game, compared to five by Bondurant-Farrar.
“That’s why we work on fundamentals so much,” Diehl said. “I talk to the kids all the time. It matters in big games like this to be able to field the ball clean and make plays. Vanessa Bakley, wow. I stood out there a couple of times and complimented her on the way she played the ball. I can’t wait to see what she is when she’s a senior.”
But perhaps the biggest error of the game for Bondurant-Farrar was the pitch to Robins in the seventh inning.
“She just threw me that pitch,” Robins said. “She probably shouldn’t have thrown me that. I just wanted to get bat on ball.”
“As soon as she made contact, you knew it was gone,” Bemis said. “She just crushed that ball. We went crazy and it was an amazing feeling.”
Robins and Bemis were named to the Class 3A All-Tournament Team for the second consecutive year, and were joined by teammates Bakley and Ally Deutsch. Bemis was named the captain of the all-tournament team.
Clarke ends its state championship season with a record of 27-8.
Seniors on the team were Bemis, Robins, Devon Carson, Mackenzi Otto, Kennedy Crees and Brenna Paul.
Diehl was a seventh-grader in 1995 when the Lady Indians made their first appearance at the state tournament and won the state championship.
“I’ll never forget being up here and seeing them win,” an emotional Diehl said. “I wish I could have done it myself as a player. But to do it as a coach is a really special experience. And to do it in my hometown is even more. I’m so proud of these kids and I’m proud to be a Clarke Indian.”
Clarke 7, Bondurant-Farrar 6
R H E
B-F 001 030 2 — 6 11 5
Clarke 300 300 1 — 7 10 1
BF: Keely Bycroft 2BB 7K and Annika Ekstam. Clk: Libby Bemis 1BB 6K and Lexy Carson. W — Bemis. L— Bycroft. HR — Clk: Carley Robins 1. 3B — BF: Ashley Burrows 1. 2B — BF: Bycroft 1, Erin Handley 1, Kenzie Adkins 1. RBI — BF: Katie Norton 2, Burrows 1, Bycroft 1, Ekstam 1. Clk: Devon Carson 2, Robins 1, Vanessa Bakley 1. Multiple hitters — BF: Emily Wilson 3, Burrows 2. Clk: Robins 3, Kennedy Crees 2, Bemis 2.