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Prep softball: Comets shut out No. 14 Twin Cedars

ELDON — Perhaps, sooner rather than later, the Cardinal High School softball team will see their name on the list of schools ranked by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.

The Comets have already beaten two of the 75 teams that have appeared on both the preseason and first regular-season editions of the IGHSAU statewide softball rankings.

Back on the diamond for the first time since knocking off seventh-ranked (3A) Washington in the second game of a varsity doubleheader last Thursday, Cardinal welcomed in 13th-ranked (1A) Twin Cedars on Wednesday looking to take down another team hoping to make a run to Fort Dodge for the Iowa High School State Softball Tournament. With a dominant start in the pitching circle by Nicoa McClure and some timely hits at the plate, Cardinal shut down the Sabers earning a 6-0 win over a program that hoisted a state championship trophy less than two years earlier

"I just keep telling the girls that it doesn't matter if the other team we're playing is ranked or not. If they keep playing as a team, bring the energy to every game and get their bats going, we're a hard team to beat," Cardinal head softball coach Dustin LaRue said. "The biggest thing this year is the girls are playing like that. It doesn't matter if we've got seniors contributing or freshmen and sophomores. Whoever is out there, they are playing as a team. That's exciting to see."

Cardinal continued its strong start on Thursday, pulling away from Chariton late to put away an 8-1 win that keeps the Comets unbeaten in South Central Conference play. The top of Cardinal's batting order led the way against the Chargers with lead-off hitting senior shortstop Emma Becker collecting three of Cardinal's 12 hits, scoring twice, with Brinlee Ostrander and Summer LaRue combining to drive in five runs on four combined hits while scoring three combined runs.

McClure, meanwhile, continued to pitch with poise and command early in her senior season. After shutting out Twin Cedars on three hits on Wednesday, McClure allowed just one run to Chariton on four hits and one walk while striking out six batters.

"It was good to have the Memorial Day weekend to get rested up and refocused for this week," McClure said. "I tried to focus mostly on my spin of the ball. I wanted to hit this and that. I kind of went in with the mindset of getting one strikeout each inning."

McClure got right on that goal in the first inning on Wednesday, striking out Twin Cedars starting pitcher Jillian French to complete a perfect opening inning against the Sabers. By the time McClure got back in the circle, Cardinal had stacked their senior ace to a 2-0 lead as French and eighth-grade catcher Layla McCarty struggled to keep the ball around the plate, leading to three wild pitches that helped Becker score after drawing a lead-off walk and moved Summer LaRue to third after a one-out single, allowing Cynthia Albert to bring home her sophomore teammate with a sacrifice fly to right.

"I didn't really like the way we competed. It's not like we've competed in other games this season," Twin Cedars head softball coach Zach Dunkin said. "We struggled getting the ball in the strike zone and that kind of set us back a little bit. We haven't had a lot of luck on the offensive side so far, so when we gave up two early runs like that, it seemed like we got down."

McClure would ultimately achieve her goal against Twin Cedars by recording at least one strikeout in each of the seven innings on the way to recording 10 total strikeouts while retiring 11 of the first 12 batters faced in Wednesday's contest. The Sabers put just six runners on base in the contest with only two moving beyond first base.

"I knew that once they got any momentum going, they weren't going to stop," McClure said. "It felt good each time to stop them right where they were. I put in a lot of work over the past year working on spinning the ball and locating my pitchers. I'm feeling really good going into this season."

Summer LaRue led Cardinal on Wednesday with two hits, including a double, while driving in a run in the fourth on a fielder's choice ground ball. Maclain Hickenbottom, who picked up her first varsity pitching win and first varsity home run in Cardinal's upset win over No. 7 Washington, added an RBI single in the third inning on Wednesday as the Comets built their six-run lead in the fourth getting back-to-back doubles from Alexis Bissell and Ashlynn Patrick to help bring in the final two runs of the game.

"We've got two different levels of players from the travel ball teams that I've helped coach and Mike Ferrell had previously coached. They're all starting to come together," Dustin LaRue said. "Nicoa really relaxed out there in the pitching circle. She's throwing great this year knowing she has a defense behind her that will make plays for her."

Cardinal remains tied atop the South Central Conference standings after Thursday's win at Chariton, joined by Centerville and Knoxville who each improved to 2-0 along with the Comets. The Redettes (4-3) snapped a two-game losing streak, holding off Clarke for an 11-7 win in Osceola while Knoxville put away a 5-2 win over Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont with a four-run rally in the top of the sixth.

After traveling to No. 13 (3A) Albia on Friday, seeking another win over a ranked opponent, Cardinal (5-1) will head to the Lacey Sports Complex on Saturday to compete in the Oskaloosa Classic. The Comets will face Oskaloosa and Pella on Diamond 1 starting at approximately 11 a.m.

"I'm ecstatic right now. I know the girls are as well," LaRue said. "I just keep telling them you've got to play every game and go into each game with the same mindset. Don't look ahead. Don't overlook anyone. We go into each game knowing we have to play the same game and play our game."

Twin Cedars, meanwhile, bounced back from Wednesday's loss with a 6-0 Bluegrass Conference shutout at Lamoni on Thursday. French responded to a frustrating night against the Comets by tossing a complete-game one-hit shutout, striking out 16 batters.

"We're not going to give a lot of runs. Normally, we're solid on defense and pitching," Dunkin said. "We just have to be more competitive on the offensive side. I think this team has the talent to meet that high bar we've set as a program over the past two seasons. We just have to figure out who we are as a team, but it's all right there in front of them."

Twin Cedars (3-3, 2-0 Bluegrass) will also be in action this weekend. The Sabers travel to Pleasantville to face the Trojans and Lynnville-Sully in a Saturday triangular.