Comeback Cougars rally again, AGWSR back in regional final

The AGWSR dugout erupts in celebration as Alyssa Hames scores the tying run in the fifth inning of a regional semifinal against Janesville in Ackley on Friday. (Jake Ryder photo)
Jake Ryder

ACKLEY – Taylor Sperfslage knew the AGWSR softball team had been here before.

The Cougars have had to come back from significant deficits in games earlier this summer, and faced another one in Friday's regional semifinal against Janesville.

The Wildcats built a 10-4 lead in the fourth inning.

"I don't think we were too nervous," Sperfslage said. "We were just looking for base hits."

Sperfslage had a big base hit in the fifth with a two-run home run and came up with the winning run on a sacrifice fly that scored MaKenna Kuper for a 14-13 victory and a spot in Monday's regional final at third-ranked Clarksville.

AGWSR, ranked 14th in Class 1A, improved to 11-4. Earlier this year, the Cougars overcame early deficits to BCLUW and Grundy Center to find victory.

The bats are showing up for the Cougars, racking up 15 hits to match a speedy, savvy Janesville squad blow for blow.

That's a good sign for a team that struggled to find hits in a 1-0 regional final loss to Bishop Garrigan last year.

"We gave them the take sign a lot tonight," AGWSR co-head coach Brenda Drake said. "But once they saw it, they were focused. We had big hits at the bottom of the lineup; [Sammi] deNeui had a nice big hit, Avery had a nice hit to keep it going, too. Of course Kuper's been on lately, too. … We had to hit to win, and we did that."

Another Cougar finding their mojo in the batter's box on Friday was Ali Gerbracht. The senior catcher/pitcher was 0-for-3 with a strikeout in Wednesday's 2-0 win against BCLUW and appeared visibly frustrated with her performance after Wednesday's game.

"I wasn't having the best attitude the last few days and I knew that I had to fix it," Gerbracht said. "Today, I came in positive, ready to go, ready to adjust, not worried about striking out, just worried about having a good solid hit."

Gerbracht had three hits on Friday, driving in two runs directly and putting balls in play that scored two more, and also crossed the plate twice for the Cougars.

"She wants to hit it so bad that she gets overaggressive sometimes," Drake said. "She has to slow herself down, we threw her pitches and it's like, 'You can only swing at these pitches,' and that's kind got her focused a little more."

She also pitched the final four and one-third innings in relief of Rachel Sicard, striking out four with one walk and three earned runs on six hits.

"It was a tight strike zone for both teams and Ali came in and did awesome," Drake said. "We knew that they were a good hitting team and we had to shut that down and I thought we played defense really well."

Sperfslage's first home run of the summer came at a perfect time. The Cougars trailed 11-7 going into the bottom of the fifth but Gerbracht started the scoring with a single that scored Kuper. With two outs, Sperfslage stepped in and belted a no-doubter over the left-field fence, getting the Cougars within a run at 11-10.

"I was feeling really good, very confident at the plate," Sperfslage said. "I think [Janesville pitcher Bailey Hoff] was a really good speed for us and we really wanted this one bad for our seniors."

After Alyssa Hames drew a walk, Sammi deNeui delivered a hit to right that scored Hames from first as the tying run.

In the seventh, the Wildcats put some pressure on AGWSR with run-scoring hits from Hoff and Cloey McCarville. In the bottom half of the inning, Rachel Sicard led off with a walk and Sperfslage doubled to put Taylor and courtesy runner Tessa Sperfslage on second and third, respectively. Alyssa Hames grounded out but Tessa scored from third. deNeui was walked and Avery Lafrenz lifted a sacrifice fly to right to score Taylor Sperfslage for the tying run. The Cougars put runners on first and second but Sidney Schafer grounded into a fielder's choice to send the game to extras.

Gerbracht and AGWSR's defense retired the Janesville side in five pitches in the eighth, and the Wildcats found themselves facing the top of the AGWSR order in the bottom of the eighth.

Kuper singled to start the inning and Gerbracht reached when the first baseman was pulled off the bag on a grounder. Kuper advanced to third on the miscue and Rachel Sicard was walked to load the bases and allow for a force at any base with Sperfslage at the plate.

"Brenda told me I needed to just get a fly ball deep," Sperfslage said. "I knew Kenna had speed, so no matter where it went, she was gonna score."

Friday’s win sets up a matchup between the Cougars and Indians in Clarksville with a spot in the Class 1A state tournament on the line.

The last time these two teams met was June 1, 2019 at a North Butler tournament. Clarksville ace Kori Wedeking struck out 10 in five shutout innings as the Indians won 6-0. Clarksville went on to finish as runners-up to Collins-Maxwell at the state tournament; the Indians returned most of that team this summer, including Wedeking.

Wedeking, now a senior, has struck out 166 with three earned runs allowed in 82 innings pitched this season.

Sperfslage and the Cougars look forward to the challenge.

“We haven’t seen them in a long time. Hopefully we surprise them with our bats and how much we’ve improved,” Sperfslage said. “Our seniors love the sport and they’re not ready to be done. We want to do as much as we can for them and help them play as long as they can.”


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