DEWITT, N.Y. — We can skip calling it “One of the greatest comebacks in NJCAA history.” What North Dakota State College of Science did in the seventh inning of the national championship game Saturday, May 27, is one of the greatest comebacks in college softball history. Period.
The Wildcats scored six runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat on the biggest stage. Lara Dolezal delivered a walk-off single up the middle on an 0-2 count, plating Karissa Comer and pinch runner Tarin Thomas to shock the Corning Red Barons, 13-12, handing NDSCS its first-ever softball national title.
Karissa Comer earned Most Outstanding Offensive Player. The sophomore first baseman scored 10 runs for the Wildcats, batting 8-for-9 in three games against Corning. Amanda Hiner and Avery Martin were also named to the all-tournament team, while NDSCS head coach Mike Oehlke earned Coach of the Tournament in his eighth season at the helm. Mike is a longtime Men's Fastpitch player who has played on or with numerous South Dakota teams, most recently with Young's Primetime of Watertown
Katelyn Strauss was named Most Outstanding Pitcher. The NJCAA All-American surpassed 600 pitches in the tournament, including 190 in the championship round. The “Spokane Superwoman” recorded 22 of her 35 strikeouts against Corning, finishing her sophomore season at NDSCS with a dazzling 25-6 record, 306 strikeouts and a 2.29 ERA.
Championship Game One - NDSCS 11, Corning 4
Corning had previously beaten NDSCS in the semifinals, 3-2. The Red Barons entered Saturday without a loss, meaning the Wildcats needed to beat them twice to win it all in the double-elimination tournament.
Corning strung together three singles in the bottom of the third to grab a 3-2 lead. The Red Barons threatened to score again in the fourth, but Pachel caught a runner stealing third and Strauss escaped the inning by inducing an infield fly. Pitching for the fourth consecutive day, Strauss fanned nine batters in a signature performance.
Momentum swung completely to the ‘Cats after a world-class play in center field in the sixth inning. Landes drifted to the warning track and robbed the Red Barons of a home run with a spectacular grab over the fence. Hiner added a highlight-reel throw from right field, osting a runner at third base in the final inning. When the dust settled, NDSCS blew out the ‘Barons, 11-4, to set up a second championship game for all the marbles.
Championship Game Two - NDSCS 13, Corning 12
Strauss finally ran out of gas in the fourth inning of a close game. Ashley Bisping entered for her second tournament appearance with NDSCS trailing 5-3. The sophomore loaded the bases with two outs and walked in a run, before buckling down to strike out the last batter and keep her team’s national title hopes alive.
Bisping hadn’t pitched since starting the tournament opener Wednesday. She fared well in that game, surrendering one earned run across four innings. Saturday’s task was much larger, however, and Bisping did everything she could to limit a Corning program that led the nation in runs scored. Corning tacked on four runs in the sixth and seventh, digging the Wildcats a 12-7 hole with three outs remaining in the game.
The Rally of a Lifetime
The inning suddenly became a game of inches. Hiner laced a ball just over the right fielder’s glove for a two-run triple and Martin scored her on a single. Switzler walked and Corning beaned Comer to load the bases. Just like that, NDSCS trailed 12-9.
Following a single by Martin to make it a 12-10 game, Landes hit a soft liner to second base. The NDSCS dugout went completely quiet as the game appeared destined to end. Instead, the ball took an in-between hop, eating up the infielder and cutting the Corning lead to one.
In the game-winning at-bat, Dolezal found herself behind in the count after watching strike two cross the center of the plate. The freshman from North Bend, Nebraska, didn’t make the same mistake twice, jumping on the next pitch and grounding it over the top of second base to cement her place in NDSCS sports lore. Oehlke’s assistant coach, Matt Fellows, went berserk as Comer and Tarin Thomas crossed the plate for the winning runs and the Wildcats celebrated at Carrier Park Field of Dreams.