Photo by Jeff Yoder
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – For the first time in five years, the Regina softball team will not play for a state title.
Rival West Branch made sure of that on Thursday by defeating the seventh-ranked Regals 3-1 in a Class 2A, Region 8 quarterfinal at Regina.
Junior first baseman Mackenzie Heise turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 lead with one swing as she belted a three-run home run over the left-field fence in the sixth inning.
Junior pitcher Kaiya Luneckas then put the finishing touches on a complete-game five hitter by recording the final six outs as West Branch improved to 18-17 on the season.
“It’s unbelievable,” Heise said. “We haven’t won against Regina forever and this is just the icing on the cake.”
Not many teams have won against Regina in the playoffs recently and the Bears were in danger of being yet another loser after falling behind 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning.
But then Lexie Peak led off the sixth with a single and Nicki Henson followed with a bunt single to set the stage for Heise, who as a left-handed hitter smacked her home run to the opposite field.
Heise said she wasn’t trying to hit the ball to the opposite field.
“I was just trying to get a hit down,” Heise said.
Heise initially thought her home run would land in foul territory, but then she saw Henson react on the base paths.
“When I saw Nicki in front of me jumping, then I realized it was out,” Heise said.
Heise hit her home run against Regina senior pitcher Katie Bracken, who was dominant at times in Thursday’s game, finishing with 11 strikeouts.
“I thought she threw well,” Regina coach Jake Koolbeck said of Bracken. “That one inning, they put some good swings on the bat.
“I knew the top of their order was dangerous and was going to be able to put some contact and maybe barrel some up.”
West Branch struggled early in the season, but head coach Chandran Lapel kept encouraging her players to stick with it and to keep working.
The players were rewarded for their perseverance by defeating not only a rival, but one of the premier softball programs in the state.
Regina has won two state titles and twice finished runner-up over the past four seasons.
“We’ve been working so hard this season,” Lapel said. “We didn’t start out the season where we needed to be and I kept telling the girls that the end of the season is what we’re working for.
“And they wanted it. They wanted it real bad, and so did I. And it was a whole team effort. We’re just really happy and ready to keep it going.”
Koolbeck praised Luneckas for her work on the mound. It was the first time that she had faced Regina this season.
“She controlled the zone tonight,” Koolbeck said. “She wasn’t wild. She was in the zone. And she was up in counts. I thought we barreled some balls up, but they didn’t give us a whole lot of extra bases.
“And you can see kind of what we do with extra bases. That one run that we got, we take advantage of every opportunity and she did a great job of limiting our changes to use speed to put pressure on the defense by staying in the strike zone.”
West Branch will try to keep its playoff push alive on Friday when it faces Wapello (15-12) in the Region 8 semifinals at 7 p.m. Pekin (18-13) and Van Buren (15-11) will meet in the other semifinal in what has turned into a wide open district.
The West Branch players all charged the mound when the game ended to celebrate, while the Regina players tried to come to terms with their season ending so early in the playoffs.
Tears flowed as the Regina players tried to console each other after the game. It was especially hard on the seniors because it was their last time in a Regina uniform.
Regina finished the season with an 18-18 record.
West Branch 000 003 0 – 3 5 1
Regina 000 010 0 – 1 5 0
W – Kaiya Luneckas L – Katie Bracken
2B – ICR: Lauren Marth
HR – WB: Mackenzie Heise
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