BETTENDORF — The Burlington High School softball team had defending state champion Pleasant Valley on the ropes and looked ready to score a big blow against the Spartans.
But the Spartans, like true champions, managed to duck the Grayhounds' haymaker and hold on for a 4-2 victory in a Class 5A regional final on Tuesday night at Spartan Field.
Top-ranked Pleasant Valley (32-7), which has played in the last two Class 5A state title games, advances to the state tournament next week at Harlan Rogers Park in Fort Dodge.
Burlington (31-10) had its chances.
"Pleasant Valley is a very good ball club. They are very difficult to beat," BHS head coach Larry Heath said. "We played right with them and competed hard. Unfortunately, they put that one inning together and that was the difference in the game."
Pleasant Valley couldn't have asked for a better start. After senior Ellie Spelhaug, who pitched in the last two state title tilts, shut down the Grayhounds in order in the top of the first inning, her little sister put the Spartans ahead to stay. Carli Spelhaug laced Makaylin Powers' first pitch of the game over the right-center field fence for her ninth home run of the season. Spelhaug hit the ball to nearly the exact same spot she hit the second pitch of the Spartans' regional semifinal game on Saturday.
"She's awesome," Pleasant Valley senior first baseman Alexia Lara said of Carli Spelhaug. "We call her our Lamborghini because she always gets us off to a fast start."
Pleasant Valley, which swept a doubleheader from the Grayhounds a week earlier at BHS, added to their lead in the third inning. Once again, Carli Spelhaug was the catalyst, starting the rally with a one-out single to left. Emily Wood followed with a slap single to left and Ellie Spelhaug drew a walk to load the bases for Lara. Lara drove a 1-0 pitch to left field, driving in Carli Spelhaug and Wood to give the Spartans a 3-0 lead.
"I was focusing on looking for my pitch," Lara said. "I got a good one and just went with it. It was an offspeed pitch on the inner half of the plate and I just drove it."
Heath brought in freshman Adessa Brandenburg to pitch. A wild pitch allowed courtesy runner Carly Lundry to score and make it a 4-0 game before Brandenburg got the final two outs to end the inning.
Brandenburg retired eight of the first nine batters she faced before back-to-back walks in the sixth brought Powers back in to finish the game.
"I thought Adessa Brandenburg did a good job coming in under difficult circumstances," Heath said. "She came in and held them and gave us a chance to get back into the game."
BHS countered with two runs in the top of the fourth. Powers doubled to start the inning and Bryanna Mehaffy followed with slap single to left.
Powers trotted home on a passed ball to put the Grayhounds on the scoreboard.
BHS looked to score a knockout blow moments later when Emily Bloomer lined a shot up the middle that caromed off Ellie Spelhaug's left leg and bounded into right field, allowing Mehaffy to score and make it a 4-2 game. Spelhaug was hobbled, but stayed in the game after a brief delay.
That delay seemed to give the Spartans a chance to regroup. Alvia Fawcett them bounced a ball up the middle which second baseman Carli Spelhaug fielded, fired to shortstop Mallory Lafever to force out Bloomer. Lafever then fired to first baseman Lara to complete the double play.
Just like that, the Spartans were out of the jam and had momentum squarely on their side once again.
"That double play really took the wind out of our sails," Heath said. "We had things going our way and then they had delay which allowed them to regroup and then they make that double play. That was the difference in the ball game right there."
BHS had just one baserunner the rest of the night as Lara came in to close out the final two innings.
"I really like that," Lara said of her role as closer in the postseason. "I only have to throw two innings, so I can just come in and throw my hardest."
BHS matched the Spartans with four hits, but the Grayhounds couldn't land the knockout blow as the champion Spartans earned a chance to defend their title next week.
BHS, coming off arguably its best season since the 2011 team qualified for state, graduates two seniors in Bloomer and catcher Taylor Johnson. The Grayhounds turned the corner and have all the pieces in place to make another run at the state tournament next season.
"I'm really proud of the way these kids played all year," Heath said. "We lose a couple seniors, but we've got a good nucleus coming back. We hope to take that next step next year and get to the state tournament."
WP — Ellie Spelhaug (21-2). LP — Makaylin Powers (14-5). Leading hitters — Burlington: Powers 2-3. Pleasant Valley: Carli Spelhaug 2-3. 2B — Powers. HR — C.Spelhaug. RBI — Burlington: Emily Bloomer 1; Pleasant Valley: Alexia Lara 2, C.Spelhaug 1.
Records: Burlington 31-10, Pleasant Valley 33-7.