FORT DODGE — It was a breakthrough moment from a career with 99 more pitching victories than losses that Kayla Sproul will never forget.

Following back-to-back regional final losses, Sproul and her Waterloo Columbus defense matched BCLUW out for out during a tense, 11-inning, 1-0 dual that allowed the Sailors to qualify for their first state softball tournament appearance in 2016.

“That just showed as a team how special it was,” Sproul recalls. “Eleven innings and none of us gave up. From there, it’s just been amazing. It was definitely the best memory I have.”

Sproul is part of a six-member senior class, the majority of whom have been starters since eighth grade during the most successful stretch of softball in program history. The Sailors (35-4) will be making their third consecutive state tournament appearance at 7:30 p.m. Monday against Albia (27-4) in the opening round of the Class 3A draw.

Sproul feels her veteran squad is ready to take the next step forward. Columbus has dropped its opening-round state tournament games by scores of 7-2 and 6-1 the previous two seasons.

“I think we can definitely get past this first round,” Sproul said. “It will be tough, but we need to know as a team that we can do it.

“I think going down there with that mentality will really help. There’s tough teams there and we know that. We’ve been to state twice and we know everything about it. … We’ll be ready to play.”

A more potent Columbus offense may be part of the formula for success. This year’s Sailors lead Class 3A with 343 runs scored with UNI recruit Taylor Hogan batting a 3A-best .611 out of the leadoff spot with 68 runs scored.

Sophomores Alivia Schultz, third base, and Sophie Meier, first, have added stability on the corners defensively while also driving in runs out of the middle of the lineup. Alivia Schultz leads Columbus with 58 RBIs and Meier has 34.

Senior catcher Sydney Schultz has developed a strong rapport with Sproul over the past five years and also has driven in 46 runs this season within a lineup that is as capable of laying down a bunt as driving a hit into the outfield.

“We had a lot of eighth-graders come out,” Schultz said, reflecting on a senior class that also includes seniors Maliyah Little and Jalila Hart in the outfield. “I knew if they stuck with it and got better together we could be really strong once we got to our senior year. Here we are going to state again.

“I’m happy all of them stayed out. They’re family to me. I’ve gotten a lot closer with all of them. I wouldn’t trade them for anybody else.”

Added Hart, “We just play calm. We’re a good team and we know that. We just have to keep our cool. We can build each other up when we get down.”

For Columbus coach Chris Olmstead, what makes this team special goes beyond the wins and practice reps they’ve embraced.

“They’re good kids,” Olmstaed said as his voice started to crack. “I get emotional talking about the way they treat their teammates. To see that out of high school kids, it’s constant. It’s day in and day out.

“I know how they treat people. It’s just really, really cool. The Lord has blessed me with a great group of kids, great group of parents and I’m just so thankful.”

Asked about his approach entering this year’s state tournament, Olmstead added, “We’re going to look to see if we can get a game plan against them, but I’m not overthinking things anymore. Part of the joy of high school sports is just allowing kids to play. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go and hopefully play our best game and we’re hopefully going to get a victory.”

ARMS RACE: One look inside the pitcher’s circle reveals the strength of Northeast Iowa’s returning state trio of Clarksville, Independence and Charles City.

Clarksville is back in Fort Dodge after finishing runner-up in the 2017 Class 1A state tournament. Junior Kori Wedeking leads the Indians with 256 strikeouts versus 22 walks and a 0.30 ERA in 162 innings.

Future Missouri Valley Conference arms Mackenzie Hupke (Drake) of Independence and Samantha Heyer (UNI) of Charles City have been lights out. Hupke owns a 0.51 ERA with 262 strikeouts in 180 innings for an Independence team that was defeated in the first round at state last year. Heyer has struck out 355 in 185 innings with a 0.38 ERA for a Charles City team that lost to eventual champion Des Moines Hoover in last year’s semifinal.

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