After its most successful softball season in school history, many were wondering what Creston would do for an encore.

To the delight of the folks in Union County, that encore will be back in Fort Dodge.

The Panthers stunned second- ranked Winterset in the regional semifinals and secured their fifth state appearance. No. 14 Creston (24-11) will meet No. 9 Fairfield (27-11) in a Class 4-A state tournament opener at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Rogers Sports Complex.

“We’re excited to go up again, no doubt,” coach Mike McCabe said.

A year ago, Creston reached its first state semifinal and settled for a third-place finish. However, primary pitcher Haylee LaMasters and catcher Natalie Mostek — both all-staters — graduated.

This year, the Panthers placed second behind Council Bluffs Lewis Central in the Hawkeye Ten Conference, then turned it on again in the postseason.

One of the main reasons for the lack of dropoff has been senior Taylor Briley. She has split time in the circle with junior Cali Foglesong but worked all three regional victories.

Her ability to turn the page has kept the ball in her hands, McCabe said.

“She has a great demeanor out there because she can forget a pitch and move on to the next one,” he said. “Almost to a point sometimes where it frustrates you as a coach, like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to take this a little more seriously.’ But it’s just her, and it’s a real strength of hers.”

Briley isn’t overpowering, but the Des Moines Area Community College recruit has pieced together a 13-5 record and a 2.75 ERA to go with 86 strikeouts and 28 walks. She also leads the Panthers in hits (44), RBIs (34) and slugging percentage (.604).

Briley said last year’s experience at state should pay off.

“I think since we’ve been up there before, our nerves might not be as much as it was last year,” she said.

Fairfield is the only other team in the 4-A field that reached state last season. The Trojans were fifth and return both of their pitchers, senior Alli Deao (13-7, 1.67) and junior Haley Beard (14-4, 1.98).

Creston senior Shelby Palser said she is confident her team belongs, which is important.

“I think last year, we were afraid maybe we weren’t good enough to be there,” she said. “But this year, we’re ready for everybody.”

Heelan riding hot streak

Sioux City Heelan is on a tear.

After starting the season 3-6, the Crusaders have ripped off 23 wins in 27 games to reach state for the eighth time overall and fifth time in eight years.

Thirteenth-rated Heelan (26-10) will meet No. 12 Boone (26-9) at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in a 4-A state opener in Fort Dodge.

In the hot stretch, Heelan’s only losses are to 5-A schools Ankeny, Ankeny Centennial and West Des Moines Dowling, and 1-A No. 1 Akron-Westfield.

Junior pitcher Lexi Ricke has been at the heart of Heelan’s surge. She has pitched each of the Crusaders’ last nine games and hasn’t allowed more than two runs in any of those. She is 21-8 with a 1.36 ERA on the season.

Junior shortstop Lexie Stolen leads the Heelan offense with a .511 average to go with 13 doubles, four triples, seven homers, 31 RBIs and a .967 slugging percentage. Sophomore catcher Aubrey Wolf checks in at .463 with team bests of 19 doubles and 36 RBIs.

Boone has smacked a 4-A tournament-best 28 home runs, led by senior Breanna Hunter’s 11.

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