FORT DODGE — Shantel VanHauen’s eyes lit up as the ball left the pitcher’s hand. She swung hard, heard a solid pop off her bat and joyfully leaped down the first baseline before her teammates sprinted out of the dugout in celebration.
Charles City’s senior first baseman delivered the game-winning single to center shallow center field, scoring Tayler Schmidt from third base as the Comets defeated No. 2 Fairfield, 5-4, with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning Tuesday night during the Class 4A state softball tournament’s opening round.
“It’s the best feeling ever,” said VanHauen, who connected on an 0-2 pitch that missed over the middle of the plate. “I can’t believe how amazing it was. I was like jumping as I was running to first base.
“I knew how much my team needed me so I just decided to swing as hard as I can, and it dropped perfectly.”
It was a gratifying intersection of perseverance and joy for the veteran who played a reserve role her junior season, then struggled early into her senior campaign.
“She didn’t do much through the first 20 games, but she’s one of the hotter batters the last 10-15 games,” Charles City coach Brian Bohlen said. “She simplified her swing. She’s laying off the up pitch and I knew she was going to put the ball in play. I didn’t know if it was going to be far enough. I was just praying she got it out of the infield and it worked out.”
The confidence VanHauen displayed on the game’s final play resonated throughout a Charles City team (33-6) that advanced into Thursday’s 1:30 p.m. semifinal against Ballard (34-5).
Fresh off an upset of top-ranked Benton Community in the regional finals, the Comets jumped on another one of the state’s elite early in this game. Ciana Sonberg recorded a solo home run in the first inning before Bailey Mitchell drove in Tayler Schmidt. Sonberg then scored Lisabeth Fiser on a single in the second as the Comets jumped out to a 3-0 lead.
Fairfield drew even on Kalee Watson’s two-run home run as part of a three-run top half of the third inning, but Schmidt quickly responded for the Comets by pummeling a moon shot home run well beyond the left field fence to lead off the bottom of the frame.
“Two-run homer ties it, we probably could have lost the momentum then but we came right back and scored,” Bohlen said. “I kind of looked to the bench as I was walking out to the third base coaching box. They were still fired up. They were excited running out. I knew the momentum hadn’t shifted that far. Sure enough, we came and got that next run.”
Fairfield (33-10) tied the game a second time on Bryanna Bowman’s sacrifice fly to center in the top of the sixth, but never managed to pull in front. The Trojans came up empty with the bases loaded twice and stranded runners in scoring position five of the seven innings.
“We had a lot of opportunity to score,” Fairfield coach Bob Bradfield said. “Their pitcher made some good pitches, and they made some plays on defense. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Charles City’s sophomore ace Sami Heyer didn’t have command of the electric arsenal that stifled opposition during regional play and allowed her to record 267 strikeouts in 165 innings entering state. Further complicating matters, was a defensive adjustment after catcher Kelby Katcher broke her thumb in the regional final.
Katcher started Tuesday’s game with a splint on, but the pain was too much. Sonberg moved behind the plate, Schmidt shifted over to third base and Madeline Peters came in to play second in the second inning.
“Losing Kelby behind the plate to an injury was tough,” Bohlen said. “We have not played that defense all year.
“Sami struggled a little bit today. She’s been perfect through the first two regional games. I told her after the game we won this without you pitching your best game. Come Thursday when she’s on, she’s going to be really tough.”
Heyer, who walked five and allowed five hits, leaned on her defense and still came up with the right pitches to get key outs.
“I really had to gain the confidence back,” Heyer said. “I was nervous too much in the beginning. It definitely wasn’t my best game, but it shows the defense behind me and in front of me they’re amazing and I can trust them all the way.”
If Charles City wasn’t on the radar two weeks ago as a championship contender, the Comets certainly have proven they belong following back-to-back wins over two of the top teams in the state.
Bohlen reflected back on last year’s state tournament run as a starting point. Following a 12-0 loss to Carlisle, the Comets came back and won two games to place fifth. That momentum carried through the offseason, into the summer and finally back to Fort Dodge.
“I really believe in this team and I really don’t think rankings mean anything,” VanHauen said. “We know how good we are and we believe in ourselves. I feel like that’s what gets us further. We work together as a team.”
Charles City 5, Fairfield 4
Fairfield 003 001 0 — 4 5 4
Charles City 211 000 1 — 5 8 3
Haley Beard and Sara Trent, Sami Heyer and Kelby Katcher, Ciana Sonberg (2). HRs — Kalee Watson (Fairfield). Ciana Sonberg, Tayler Schmidt (CC).