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THEY HAD IT ALL
By MARK NELKE Sports editor, The Coeur d’Alene Press
SPOKANE — A three-run homer by Jori Kerr broke the game open for North Idaho College.
Strong defensive plays — none bigger than center fielder Natalie Schwab’s run-saving diving catch in left-center to save at least a run.
Then, when the game got tight, grit from freshman pitcher Madi Mott in the circle.
NIC had it all — power, defense and pitching — all season.
And all of it was on display Monday as top-seeded NIC beat No. 6 Lower Columbia of Longview, Wash., 8-5 to win the championship of the Northwest Athletic Conference softball tournament at the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex.
“It’s breathtaking,” said Mott, who struck out six and finished 29-1. “I didn’t think I was going to cry, and tears of joy came down. It’s just a great feeling to be a part of this amazing team … best team I’ve ever been on.”
NIC, in its fourth season in the NWAC after nearly two decades in the NJCAA, finished 50-3 and won its last 23 games.
“We had 10 sophomores, and they just believe in the process,” said NIC coach Don Don Williams, who started the Cardinals program in 1998. “We started talking about that in September, and they just stuck to it. And they took our freshmen in, and got them on board, and they just worked. They worked hard, and they stuck together, and everyone got better, and persevered. It was just an amazing season.”
NIC hung on for a 7-5 victory over No. 3 Edmonds on Sunday night in the semifinal. On Monday, Lower Columbia, which finished 42-14, eliminated Edmonds (42-8) with a 7-1 victory.
Lower Columbia, needing to beat the Cardinals twice for the title, started strong against NIC when catcher Arielle Burnett hit a solo homer to center field in the bottom of the first inning.
NIC, which came in averaging 12.5 runs per game, took the lead back with three in the top of the second, capped by Kennedy Anderson’s RBI single.
Schwab came up with her defensive play in the bottom half, denying Shanay Dotson an extra-base hit with a backhanded catch, keeping the runner on second from scoring, and ending the inning.
In the third, a one-out single by Bailey Cavanagh, the former Lake City standout, put runners on first and second. One batter later Kerr, the No. 9 hitter, lined a pitch over the fence in right center for a three-run homer — her 15th of the season — and a 6-1 lead.
“Honestly I’ve been struggling this weekend to get a good swing on a good pitch,” said Kerr, a freshman left fielder who finished 2 for 3 with a homer, double, three RBIs and three runs scored in the title game. “Today I just knew I had to come out for my team and play for Madi. My first at-bat I got walked, and I was feeling it. I knew my next at-bat I was going to get on time. Man, it just felt so good when I did.”
In the fifth, Cheyenne Gilbertson grounded an RBI single to right field to pull Lower Columbia within 6-3. The next batter, Christine Robbins, hammered a two-run homer to right center and suddenly, it was a one-run game.
But Mott recovered, struck out the next batter to end the inning, then retired the Red Devils in order in the sixth and seventh.
“I was going to fight with everything I had left in me, ’til the last pitch,” Mott said.
Meanwhile, the Cards added two insurance runs in the sixth on an RBI single by Megan Carver and an infield RBI single by Kalyna Korok.
“We knew we’d be fine, because we can save any game with our bats,” Carver said. “And we pride ourselves on our defense, and obviously it helps us win games.”
Carver, a sophomore second baseman, drove in a pair of runs in the title game. On the final out, Carver rushed in and made a diving catch on an infield blooper, and the celebration was on.
Carver was a member of last year’s NIC team that went 2-2 at the conference tourney for the second straight year.
“It motivated me 100 times more,” Carver said of last year. “When we lost our second game last year (at the tournament) I was so devastated; I knew that I wasn’t going to leave NIC without a championship.”
Lower Columbia lost its second game of the tournament, and won five games in the losers bracket to earn its way into the championship round.
“I think they (the Cardinals) are a well-rounded team,” said Traci Fuller, in her seventh season as Lower Columbia head coach. “Not only can they hit, and their pitcher’s good, but they have great defense. There’s teams out here that can hit, and teams out here that can pitch, but they had it all.”
The Cardinals collect their first NWAC softball championship since joining the conference in the 2015 season.
Cardinal head coach Don Don Williams was named the 2018 Softball Coach of the Year while Mott was named Tournament MVP.
MVP- Madi Mott
Megan Carver, North Idaho
Kalyna Korok, North Idaho
Audrey Seipert, North Idaho
Kayla Curtan, North Idaho
Cheyenne Gilbertson, Lower Columbia
Allyssa Gustafson, Lower Columbia
Nizhoni Wheeler, Lower Columbia
Kendell Clauson, Lower Columbia
Seli Aholelei, Edmonds
Chantelle Shimabukuro, Edmonds
Tamia Hirano, Edmonds
Jessica Fasolino, Douglas
Shelby Kwak, Douglas
Coach of the Year Don Don Williams and MVP Madi Mott