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CEDAR FALLS — Nearing the stretch run of Missouri Valley Conference play, the University of Northern Iowa softball team appears to have an ace up its sleeve.

Former Waterloo West standout Jaclyn Spencer backed up Friday’s win over Bradley with impressive command of her pitches leading to a 4-1 victory early Saturday afternoon in the rubber game of UNI’s weekend series win at Robinson-Dresser Field.

Spencer struck out nine, walk none and received relief from senior Brooke Craig, who helped escape a seventh-inning jam with a double play. UNI’s lefty improved her season record to 6-2, after striking out 19 Bradley batters versus two walks over 11 innings this weekend.

It has been a long road back inside the pitcher’s circle for Spencer. She was cleared to return over spring break — seven months removed from an operation on the bicep of her throwing arm.

“I don’t think she’s at 100 percent, but we saw a little bit more,” UNI coach Ryan Jacobs said. “She’s starting to command her pitches a lot better, but we want to get her velocity back a little bit more and extend it a little bit longer, too. We’re going to need that going down the stretch.”

Spencer certainly feels she’s on the right path toward playing a key role within a UNI team (22-18, 13-6) that is in a four-way battle for second place and a bye into the semifinal round of the MVC Tournament.

“I started pitching five weekends ago and I’d get tired pretty easily,” Spencer recalled. “Every weekend it’s just gotten better. I’ve gotten more stamina and control of my pitches. It’s been nice to be supported by everybody. It’s been wonderful.”

Spencer helped her own cause at the plate on Saturday.

After UNI was unable to plate a run with the bases loaded in the first inning, Sammey Bunch ignited the Panther bats with an opposite-field double to lead off the bottom half of the third. Bradley pitcher Emma Jackson — who finished with three walks and four hit batters in an erratic performance — worked around Ashley Chesser for a walk before Adara Opiola was hit to load the bases.

With two out and two strikes, Spencer tagged a two-run, line-drive double to the center field fence.

“She did a great job right there,” Jacobs said. “We had opportunities to help her out before that, we didn’t. She clutched up with two strikes and got us on the board.

“At that point, I thought it was critical because she was starting to frustrate Bradley a little with their timing. Adding some runs to that maybe pressed them a little bit more and helped us through those middle innings.”

Olivia Brooks added two insurance runs for UNI with RBI slap singles in the fourth and sixth innings out of the No. 3 position in the lineup.

“She surprises people, she surprises us,” Jacobs said of Brooks. “She has done a great job in the three-hole for us. It’s unconventional, but we know what she’s going to do. She puts it in play and she applies a lot of pressure. If they’re going to put people on in front of her, she’s going to make things happen.”

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Spencer allowed just one hit before Bradley (23-17, 10-7) started to connect midway into her second trip through the Braves’ lineup. Kealia Wysocki pulled a solo home run down the left field line in the fifth inning, and Katie Habryle followed with a double before Spencer recovered with a pair of strikeouts to retire the side.

Leading by three in the seventh, Spencer surrendered back-to-back singles. Jacobs brought in Craig to face Habryle, and the move paid off in the form of a grounder that Brittney Krodinger flipped to Bunch, who turned the double play.

Spencer was reinserted into the pitcher’s circle after the double play and induced a ground ball to end the game.

On a day in which she thrived pitching and at the plate, Spencer’s favorite moment was the support Craig offered in that final inning.

“I almost started crying, but I knew I had to go back in and pitch so I had to keep my composure,” Spencer said, reflecting on the emotion of that timely double play. “That’s what being a teammate is all about. The girl Brooke had to pitch to has been hitting me all weekend. I knew it was the right decision.”

Jacobs has gained comfort turning to the bullpen the back half of this season.

“They’ve done a great job of preparing themselves and being ready to go at the drop of the hat,” Jacobs said. “That was key today. We needed Brooke for one hitter who had been kind of giving Jackie fits. Brooke is a ground ball pitcher, and she could get us a ground ball at the time we needed it.”

UNI hosts league leader Drake in a single game Tuesday.

UNI 4, Bradley 1

Bradley 000 010 0 — 1 6 2

N. Iowa 001 101 x — 4 6 0

Emma Jackson and Kaelia Wysocki. Jaclyn Spencer, Craig (7), Spencer (7) and Ashley Chesser. WP — Spencer (6-2). LP Jackson (4-5). 2B — Katie Habryle (Bradley), Spencer, Sammey Bunch (UNI). HR — Wysocki (Bradley).

Records: UNI 22-18, 13-6. Bradley 23-17, 10-7.

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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