The bases were full of Hillcrest Academy Ravens.
The score was tied in the final inning.
Malia Yoder, a Hillcrest freshman, stood at the plate facing history. Oh, sure, just another at-bat in another softball game at Hillcrest on a field squeezed between all those farms in southwest Johnson County.
Not really. Not that simple.
This was history.
The Ravens had not won a softball game since 2019. The streak had hit 40 when Hillcrest battled Mediapolis in a home game June 2.
Leah Bontrager, a senior pitcher this summer for the Ravens, was the winning pitcher back on June 27, 2019, when Hillcrest defeated Columbus. Since that time, Bontrager had set a school record in the 800-meter run at the Iowa State Track & Field Championships. She had turned into an All-Southeast Iowa Super Conference runner in both cross country and track. She had overcome a couple of stress fractures.
And on the night of June 2, she was pitching in her 63rd game for Hillcrest.
Who could even imagine that when Hillcrest topped Columbus 11-3 that June night three years ago it would be another three seasons before Bontrager won a softball game? Certainly, ironic.
“Yeah, definitely,” Leah said with a chuckle.
Kent Blossom, the Ravens head coach, wasn’t even the coach back then. He emerged as coach in 2020.
In fact, back in June 2019, the Ravens weren’t the Ravens and Hillcrest Academy was a proposal on a piece of paper. It wasn’t until a month later that Iowa Mennonite School officials announced it was rebranding the school as Hillcrest Academy.
So, technically, as Yoder stood at the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning, she was swinging for the first softball win in HIllcrest history.
No pressure at all, Malia.
So she didn’t swing.
As freshman teammate Morgyn Nafzinger got ready to run into history from third base, Yoder worked the situation against Mediapolis pitcher Hallie Mohr into a walk-off walk.
“That was super exciting. I was nervous,” Yoder said.
Nafzinger danced home with the winning run.
You might want to save that ball.
“It was really good to have the intensity and the excitement and going back and forth with the other team the whole game,” Bontrager said. “The competitiveness was great.”
Blossom watched everything unfold in front of him, perhaps convinced that three seasons of work was now beginning to pay the dividends.
“Trying to develop good athletes with strong leadership skills, leaders in the community outside of athletics,” Blossom said a few days after the big win. “All of these things are what we’re about. But to have the feeling of a win and start that momentum is pretty priceless.”
And certainly, it did start some momentum for the Ravens. They almost won the next night, falling to Pekin by just one run. A week later, the Ravens defeated Columbus by a run in a game played on the turf at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.
While a bases-loaded walk produced all the excitement and the final drama, defense is what Blossom points to. Without it, there is no game-winning walk.
“I thought ultimately our defense kept us in the ballgame,” he said. “[Esther] Hughes’ diving catch in center field. Number of plays Norah Yoder saved us at first base. Morgan [Nafziger], line-out play at second. All these smaller things defensively helped us get into a position to win.”
Hillcrest will go after more victories this week, including Thursday at Lone Tree and Friday at Central Lee.
In the meantime, the Ravens work on perfecting a few things in practice. All that work, all those hours, that’s what led to the team’s first win in nearly three years. It’s why, on the day of a recent rainout, the Ravens weren’t headed home. Instead, they grabbed their gloves and a bucket of softballs and headed indoors for a workout in the school’s gym.
“I love it here,” Malia Yoder said. “The team’s great.”
Just the way it should be.
News columnist Paul Bowker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @bowkerpaul.
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