ANAMOSA - Though it was my first full year as sports editor at the Anamosa Journal-Eureka newspaper in 1996, I had actually already covered the Anamosa softball team as a sports correspondent in 1995 for then AJ-E sports editor Dan Digmann, as the Raiders made their first-ever state tournament berth.

      As great as ’95 was for the Raider girls placing fourth at class 2A event (going 1-2 at the state tournament), ’96 was another summer that no one will ever forget, as the team would reach unprecedented heights.

      Ranked No. 2 in class 2A for pretty much the entire season, with only Carlisle being ranked higher, Anamosa went on a record run of success that may never be broken finishing with a 47-5 overall record, winning their third straight Big Bend Conference championship, second conference tournament title and making a run to the 2A state championship game, against you guessed it, Carlisle. 

      Before we get too far into that amazing state tournament team, let’s take a look at the journey it took for the Raiders to get there, because that was oh so memorable.

      Just a week into the season in early June, Anamosa cruised to their own Raider Invitational tournament championship, setting the tone for what was to come. A win at the loaded West Delaware Invitational followed, a tournament stacked with state-ranked teams, but their toughest test was still ahead of them.

      In what would eventually be a 2A state championship preview was held at the Cedar Rapids Jefferson tournament in late June, as Anamosa dropped a 3-0 final against Carlisle as Anamosa sophomore pitcher Cara Graver and Carlisle hurler Penny Cope put on an absolute show, as the contest was the highlight of the huge tournament drawing all sorts of media attention.

      “This was a good game to be able to play,” said the Anamosa softball coach Chuck Smith, who guided the program through some of their most successful campaigns ever with Rick Delagardelle and Gary Price as his assistants.

      “We played well and we knew Cope was a tough pitcher to score runs on. She pitched them to a state title two years ago. Hopefully we can come away from this game with some ideas of how to plate a few runs on her, if we play Carlisle later in the season.”

      Coach Smith didn’t know how prophetic he would actually be.

      During the same week that ended with the Raiders playing Carlisle at the Jefferson tournament, Graver threw two of her five total no-hitters during the summer, and the team headed into the stretch run.

      At the Big Bend Conference softball tournament in early July, Anamosa defended their title by defeating Cascade 3-1 in the championship game (at that time the Raiders were the only team to have won a Big Bend tourney title, as the event was just two years old) at DeWitt.

      Freshman Jessica Price pitched the Raiders to a tournament-opening 14-0 rout over Camanche tossing a four-inning no-hitter.

      In the semi-final against Maquoketa, Anamosa trailed 3-2 in the top of the seventh and with the first two Raider batters in the frame recording outs, a title looked bleak.

      But the Raiders responded, like champions do.

      Anamosa senior Kim Delagardelle reached base on a Maquoketa error and all of a sudden, the flood gates opened. Sophomore Amy Weiler drew a walk, sophomore Andrea Eilertson doubled, Graver singled, freshman Rose Galer doubled and eighth-grader Shelly Sleep singled and the Raiders had a three-run inning, all coming with two outs.

      Graver closed out the come-from-behind 5-3 victory over the Cardinals by striking out the side in the bottom of the seventh.

      Weiler and Mary Ann Frasher were keys to Anamosa defeating the Cougars in the title tilt recording two hits each.

      “Mary Ann had an excellent tournament,” Smith said. “She hasn’t had the big batting numbers this year, but her defense at third base has been outstanding and she always seems to come up with a big hit at the right time.

      “The team have Mary Ann the game-ball after the Cascade game to recognize the excellent job she has done in this tournament, and for the season overall.”

      A regular-season ending 8-0 victory at class 1A second-ranked Lisbon in late July marked the 40th win of the season for the Anamosa team, and set the Raiders up for a district and regional tournament run that ended with another phenomenal finish in the regional championship game.

      Anamosa defeated Mount Vernon (5-0) and Cascade (7-0) to claim a district championship before wins over Cedar Rapids Regis (5-2) and seventh-ranked Independence (1-0) advanced the Raiders to the regional championship game at Union-LaPorte City against the host and fifth-ranked Knights, a mere win away from the state tournament.

      It wouldn’t come easy.

      The two teams were locked in a 1-1 tie that went extra-innings, and ended when freshman pinch-runner Kelly Wacker scored in the bottom of the 12th.

      Wacker, pinch-running for senior Rachael Bauer, who led off the inning with a clutch single, scored thanks to a sacrifice fly off the bat of Delagardelle.

      But it still didn’t end quite that easily.

      Wacker was originally called out on the play by the home plate umpire, but when the ball eventually rolled out of the glove of Union catcher Amy Hanson, Wacker was ruled safe, and the game was finally over.

      Anamosa fans went wild as their team was headed to the state tournament for the second straight summer.

      “I’ve been around a few of these types of contests before,” Smith said. “It doesn’t make it any less exciting, and considering what we were playing for, this was a very special game.

      “It’s going to be fun to go back to the state tournament.”

      The Raiders returned to Fort Dodge in early August and hammered Creston 8-2 in the quarter-final before adding a 6-0 semi-final rout over Davenport Assumption to send the team to the championship game and a No. 1 vs. 2 match-up with Carlisle.

      “We put the ball in play better (in the championship game) than we did the last time we played them,” said Smith, as Anamosa saw their incredible and school-record run come to a close with a 7-0 defeat.

      “But they put the ball in play better than we did. Being No. 2 is nothing to be ashamed of. It was a fantastic season.”

      Yes, it was.

      Graver, a first-team All-State pitcher, posted school-record numbers with a 42-4 record, 288.2 innings pitched, 319 strikeouts and 0.53 earned run average.

      The game against Carlisle would be Graver’s last in an Anamosa uniform, as she would go on to pitch in two more state championship games for Clear Creek-Amana, winning one state title in 1997.

      Eilertson led the team in hitting (.468), RBIs (68), hits (72) and doubles (17), and would eventually earn a scholarship to play collegiate softball at the University of Kentucky.

      “We accomplished everything we set out to accomplish this year,” Smith said.

      That’s all you can ask for.

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