Clear Creek Amana softball already was thrown for a loop when Hall of Fame coach Jim White resigned and took over at Solon last fall. But injuries to three key players in the final basketball game of the season dealt the proud program a huge blow.
Senior all-state pitcher Maliah Fligg tore both the anterior cruciate ligament and the meniscus in her knee. In 2012, Fligg was 25-1 for the Clippers and was 17-1 the year before despite pitching with an injured arm. Sophomore pitcher Lexi Kinnaird hyperextended her PCL and suffered a deep bone bruise. Senior all-state third baseman Tara Walls also hurt a knee in that same basketball game.
Fligg had surgery and really wasn’t expected to be released until September, coach Rachel West said. But Fligg, who will continue her career at Coe, was given the chance to pitch on Senior Night while still rehabbing. She’s thrown just six innings.
“She’s not back to where she was, but she’s moving forward,” West said. “She’s still very limited in what she’s allowed to do.”
West said she can only imagine how devastating the injury was to such an accomplished senior who fully expected to go out with a bang in her final season.
“I’m sure it was devastating and really hard to be set back so far,” West said. “But once we started playing games, I think it really hit her how much she wanted to be back out there. That’s when she really started getting after it.”
Kinnaird has bounced back to the point where she’s thrown the second-most innings of any Clipper pitcher (632⁄3) and has a 6-4 record with a 2.86 ERA.
“Lexi is still in her brace,” West said. “She’s doing much better than she was at the beginning of the year. I think she’s feeling much more confident. She really became a strong pitcher for us.”
The gritty Walls is hitting .431 with 25 RBIs.
“Tara’s one of those kids where she’ll get hurt, and she won’t tell you,” West said. “She wants to play, and she’s tough. She’ll play through a lot. She’s one of the senior leaders on this team, and she wants to finish.”
Walls pushed the limits all spring but was ready to go when the season began.
Clear Creek Amana begins regional action tonight at home against Grinnell. Oddly enough, Grinnell was the opponent in the disastrous basketball finale. But don’t expect that to spook the Clippers.
“I think that’s just in the blood over here. They’re scrappy and they’re determined and they’re passionate for the game,” West said. “They don’t want to let anything hold them back.
“I think we picked up our game after the first week and a half, two weeks, and we’re now seeing what we’re capable of doing. I think our confidence has been continuously building over the season, and I think we’re very capable of making a big splash in the postseason.”
* ROCKET TO THE TOP: The Twitter Universe lit up recently with celebratory tweets after the local Rockets 18R volleyball team won a national club championship in Dallas. The team includes a number of local high school products and an incoming University of Iowa recruit.
But the tweets were notable as much for the melancholy, bittersweet realization that their time together as a unit had come to an end as it was for the celebration of the rare championship.
Coach Chin Nguyen suggested that that tight camaraderie is one important reason the team was able to win.
“It’s VERY difficult for an 18s team to win a national title,” he said. “Lots of these girls already have their volleyball scholarships secured, and it would’ve been easy for them to turn into divas. That’s what happens to a lot of 18s teams, but not this one.”
The Rockets team includes area players like Kelsey Cave (Solon ’13), Michaela Nelson (City High ’14), Heather Poula (West Branch ’13), Molly Kelly (West Liberty ’15), Michelle Lutz (Clear Creek Amana ’13) and Allison Fleming (City ’14). Dubuque Wahlert graduate Alyssa Klostermann will play at Iowa this fall. Other players were Lexi Rogers (C.R. Kennedy ’13), Audrey Reeg (Hempstead ’13) and Kaitlynn Vought (Humboldt ’13). Former Solon and Bradley player Skylar Lesan is the assistant coach to Nguyen.
“They are very different because they do everything together, whether it be on the court or off the court,” Nguyen said. “They hang out together. They’ll go to each other’s schools to watch them play. They all love each other; it’s almost like they are sisters. And what’s really neat is the group of parents are just as tight.”
Competition in these national tournaments is a big step up from most Iowa high school matches. Nearly every time they step on the court the Rockets face teams with multiple players over 6-feet tall who are headed to powerful Division I programs. The Rockets boasted one player that tall, Cave, but she was out of action with a stress fracture in her back.
But three years ago, this group upset the top-seeded team from southern California in a tournament in Reno, Nev. The Rockets captivated the audience, which rightly saw the match as a David vs. Goliath showdown. Nguyen said the group defied convention and just continued to improve and grow closer the next three years.
This summer’s championship concluded with Cave coming off the bench for what Nguyen thought would be a token appearance for the final point of the match. The fans gave her a big ovation, understanding she hadn’t played in three or four months. Cave blocked a kill attempt for the championship point.
“You can imagine all the tears,” Nguyen said. “It was really, really neat. We stood on the court for a long time. They had to kick us off the court.”
Klostermann was named MVP of the all-tournament team, and Lutz and Reeg also were all-tournament selections.
“It’s so neat to see them come together in their last year together before they go off to college,” Nguyen said. “We get on the court and everybody looks at our team and looks at the other team and they say this team (the Rockets) has no chance. But when we play, we all play together as one, and they play for each other.”