Katie Schaul still expected to have to prove herself as she stepped into the batter’s box for her fourth plate appearance of the day.
Mired in what she considered to be a slump, Schaul didn’t think her first two at-bats had been enough to prompt Linn-Mar to issue an intentional walk with a base open.
That was a mistake.
Schaul collected three hits, including a pair of doubles, and drove in three runs, and Malarie Huseman hurled a two-hit shutout as No. 11-ranked Dubuque Hempstead blanked the Lions, 6-0, in an Iowa Class 5A regional semifinal on Saturday at Hempstead.
Schaul, a senior and the Mustangs’ leadoff hitter, doubled and scored in her first at-bat, then added an RBI double an inning later. She stepped to the plate with runners at second and third and one out in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Already trailing, 4-0, Linn-Mar opted to pitch to her. She wasn’t at all surprised.
“I still had to prove myself because I’ve been in a slump lately,” said Schaul. “So I needed to come out and prove myself today, and I think they needed to pitch to me. I needed to prove myself today. That’s what needed to happen.”
A slump for Schaul isn’t really a slump for others. She extended her hitting streak to 10 games and is 18-for-35 (.514) with 18 RBIs over that span. But over the last four games of the regular season, she had just four hits and two RBIs.
She’s hitting .468 (60-for-128) for the season with 16 doubles, four triples, three home runs and 46 RBIs.
Schaul lined a 2-1 pitch up the middle to plate two more insurance runs, and the Mustangs advanced to Tuesday’s regional final.
“These last few games I haven’t been myself. I’ve been in my head,” Schaul said. “This one was for the team. I just needed to step it up as a senior and to take them to state this year is our goal. We are shocking a lot of people this year. A lot of people doubted us and I think it’s pretty special what we’re doing this year.”
Hempstead is just a win away from making only the second state tournament appearance in program history, and the second in two seasons.
It’s at least the sixth time in eight seasons the Mustangs have reached the regional final.
“The majority of these kids have been in that position now,” Mustangs coach Alisha Frese said. “How many regionals finals has it been where we came up on the short end of the stick, you know? You just kind of got used to that feeling of walking out of there with a close game or whatever, and now I think these kids believe. They never look back. They keep pushing and they get the job done. And we have young kids that just want to experience it for the first time. Some of them are hitting in the middle of our lineup and coming through and feeling good.”
The Mustangs improved to 32-7 despite graduating five starters from last year’s state qualifier.
Schaul, Huseman, shortstop Kaylie Springer and catcher Kayla LaPage are the only returning starters from last year. But the turnover hasn’t made a bit of difference.
Huseman, who pitched in two of Hempstead’s three state tournament games last year, struck out five and walked four, and only twice allowed a baserunner to advance past first base. She allowed just a one-out single in the fourth and a leadoff single in the sixth. Linn-Mar added a second baserunner with nobody out in the sixth, but Huseman recovered with two straight strikeouts and a popout to escape the threat.
“I just have to think positive and tell myself I’m going to get this done. They’re not going to score, I just need to relax,” said Huseman, who improved to 20-5 and lowered her earned run average to 1.10. “I was kind of shaky at the beginning of the game, but I relaxed and got the job done.”
Linn-Mar put a runner on third with one out in the second, but Huseman coaxed a foulout, and centerfielder Micki Blean tracked down a hard-hit liner in center for the third out.
“The way (Huseman) was able to respond obviously helped,” said Frese, who noted that Hempstead’s seven losses came by a combined 11 runs. “We went through (our games this season) and circled leadoff walks and errors, and that’s what it came down to tonight. We played defense, we put the ball in play, we got on top and we scored. Those walks, when the defense held them and she came back with strikeouts, they didn’t matter.”
Hempstead took an early lead after Schaul opened the first with a double. Springer was hit in the helmet by a pitch and LaPage lofted a fly ball down the left-field line that bounced off the fielder’s glove for an error and the first tally.
Carleigh Hodgson drew a one-out walk in the second and scored on Schaul’s double. Springer followed with an RBI single two pitches later to make it 3-0.
Jadyn Glab, who returned to the Hempstead lineup after missing the last six games with an illness, doubled home Lydia Ettema in the fifth for a 4-0 lead.
Hempstead advanced to Tuesday’s regional final and will either play at No. 6 Iowa City High (33-7).
The Little Hawks swept the Mustangs, 2-1 and 5-4, in the opening week of the season. The first game went nine innings.
"It’s been a long time since we've played them; been a long time since we’ve seen them," Frese said. "It’s a different season. We’re the ones that have nothing to lose. I think it’s going to be a great game."