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Beatrice vs. Crete softball, 9/17

Crete's Morgan Maly swings at a pitch during the 2018 season. Maly is one of the top bats in the Cardinal lineup.

For Crete, the softball season is chopped into thirds.

The first third, the opening weeks of the season, is used to find a groove. "We're trying to make the puzzle pieces fit," Cardinals coach Shawn Carr says.

The second third, the middle part of the schedule, is quite simply the grind.

The final third -- conference, subdistrict and district tournaments and potentially state -- is crunch time, or in Crete's case, crush time.

The Cardinals rolled to the Central Conference Tournament championship on Friday, outscoring its three opponents -- Holdrege, Adams Central and Seward -- 40-2.

The final third of the season continues this week with Class B subdistricts on Monday and Tuesday and district finals on Friday, and Carr sees a team dialed in for the final stretch run.

"Our kids just had their ears pinned back this weekend, especially," he said. "I just like the team chemistry. The vibe that the team has is amazing."

Crete has hit the ball well all season, Lexi Mach has taken a big step forward in the circle mixing pitches and speeds, and the Cardinals are loaded on experience. Many of the girls that were part of the Class B state title run in 2017 remain on the team. Needless to say, Crete (25-1) has big hopes for October.

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The offense, led by Izzy Eltze, Morgan Maly, Leah Jurgens, Mach and Cassidy Skillet, has been producing all season, especially in recent contests. Crete has scored 16, 12, 16, 15, 13 and 12 runs over the past six games.

The difference this season has been depth. Carr said the team is much deeper than the past couple of years.

"I like the fact that our depth is really good right now, offensively," he said. "We can run kids in to bunt, we can run kids in to run and steal bases, and we have a ton of bats. If we have a matchup that we don't like, we can sub."

Crete's depth shined on a gray day at the Central Conference Tournament. The bottom of the lineup got things going, setting the table for Eltze, Jurgens, Maly and Skillet. Big innings followed.

The Cardinals, ranked third, have already guaranteed themselves a spot in Friday's district finals, regardless of what happens in subdistricts. But Carr said the teams wants to keep things going, and there's chance for the Cardinals to see No. 2 Beatrice on Monday and/or Tuesday. The Lady Orange handed Crete its only defeat, 8-6 on Sept. 26.

"We want to win them all," Carr said, noting the high competitive nature of his team. "We're still not happy with the fact that down at Beatrice, they got us, so we just want to win. They're so in the moment and so present with everything that we do, they want our season to run as long as it can, so we know Monday and Tuesday are big, but we're going to focus on North Bend Central (Monday's first-round opponent) and then after that, NEN or Beatrice."

Carr said he wants to see good weather Monday and Tuesday. But regardless of clouds or sun, he wants the team to stay in the groove.

"I just want to see our kids play the way they have," he said. "A lot of people talk about the process and we just talk about being present. We want our kids to be present Monday, enjoy a big home game that they've earned. If they play hard and play the way that hey have for all season, we'll have a chance to win, and if we have a chance to come out on top, that's awesome. If we don't win, we'll tell whoever beats us 'Congrats,' and we'll get ready for the next game."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsGrell.

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