OTTUMWA — Tension mounted inning after inning, then by the at-bat. Prairie City-Monroe's huddles just outside its third-base dugout persisted with encouragements — "Here we go! Say you can! Want it ladies, stay up!" — after the top half of each inning. The dugout grew livelier as players pounded the roof with desperation, only to see their bid for a state tournament berth fall short.
PCM's season ended Monday night in a 6-4 loss to West Burlington/Notre Dame in a Class 3A regional final. The Mustangs were as close to reaching the state tournament as they were to erasing a five-run deficit in the seventh inning.
Trailing 6-1 with three outs to spare, the Mustangs loaded the bases to begin their half of the seventh. Kayla Jennings drove in one run on a sacrifice fly and then Abigail Gilson drove the first pitch she saw to right-center field for a double, scoring two more runs.
But as had been the case throughout the night, PCM couldn't crack Falcons pitcher Kori Mesecher. The Mustangs, which had a base runner in every inning but the fourth, went 2-for-14 with runners on base against Mesecher. Makenna Van Veen, representing the tying run, grounded out to Mesecher for the final out.
"We always believe in each other until it's over and we knew we could do it," Gilson said as she tried holding back her emotions. "I really think nine times out of 10, we get out of there and we pull out with a win, but it wasn't there tonight."
The Mustangs' bats abandoned the team at the least opportune time. A PCM squad that entered Monday's game averaging almost 10 runs per game during its 10-game winning streak was held to only four hits, tying a season low.
Mesecher and the Falcon defense played a large role in silencing PCM. The right-handed pitcher retired 14 of 16 batters faced from the second to the sixth inning and did enough with what she had to maintain her team's early lead.
"As far as Kori, she didn't have her best stuff tonight. She seemed to be missing her spots just a little bit, but hit enough spots to keep them off balance," said West Burlington/Notre Dame coach David Oleson, whose team is headed back to the state tournament for the second time in four years.
West Burlington/Notre Dame took a 3-0, first-inning lead thanks to a pair of PCM errors.
After Gilson singled home Vos in the bottom of the first, Mesecher and PCM pitcher Rachael Freland took over. Freland, who owned 3A's fourth-best ERA coming in, didn't give up an earned run until the seventh inning and kept her team afloat while the offense sputtered.
"Our bats weren't really on fire like they usually are right away," Gilson said. "We thought we could start stringing hits together, but it didn't happen. She (Mesecher) had a good game pitching. We didn't get on top of her right away and that really hurt us in the end."
PCM twice had runners in scoring position in the fifth and sixth innings, but stranded runners each time without scoring.
That proved costly in the top of the seventh when the Falcons added three insurance runs that became vital to advance to state.
"Just wasn't our night," PCM head coach Whitney Plein said. "We came out, we did what we normally did and it just didn't work out for us."