The second-seeded West Jefferson softball team looked like a juggernaut during pregame infield and outfield practice prior to its Division III Central District championship game with No. 4 North Union on Friday, May 23, at Pickerington Central.
The Roughriders were sharp and efficient, nearly every throw hit its mark, every groundball was scooped up effortlessly and West Jeff had the look of a team on the cusp of winning the school’s first ever district softball championship. Then the game started.
All the moxie, all the poise and all the confidence the team showed in warm-ups and had played with all season long seemingly disappeared in one of the worst half innings the team played all season. Three throwing errors in the top half of the third inning and a Wildcats squad clicking offensively were too much to overcome in a 12-2 run-rule shortened loss.
“We just shot ourselves in the foot,” West Jeff coach Jim Stevens said. “Against a caliber team like North Union, you have to come out on top of your game, you can’t give them anything. They are the type of team that will capitalize on your mistakes and we made a lot of them and they capitalized on them. There’s not really anything else to say.”
It was ominous start for the Roughriders (19-6) as North Union’s Emily Clark, an All-Ohio catcher who’s verbally committed to play in college at Ohio State University, hit the first strike she saw from West Jeff starter Annie Haenszel well over the fence in left field for a 1-0 Wildcats lead.
West Jeff couldn’t muster any offense in its first two at-bats, but was very much in the game when play reached the decisive third inning.
North Union’s Clark was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame. When the Wildcats went to bunt with the next batter, the ball was fielded by West Jeff third baseman Josie Hume but her throw to first was low and the umpire determined first baseman Emily Stevenson didn’t corral it in time. Another batter, another bunt and another throwing-catching miscue by Hume and shortstop Madison Gatley, who was covering third. A run scored on the play.
The next batter hit a sharply hit ball back to Haenszel who fired it toward home, but it grazed off the glove of catcher Taylor Bowman and went to the backstop, allowing another run to score. The Wildcats tacked on another run and led 4-0.
“Our mental toughness went away early and that hurt us,” Stevens said. “We tried to get them refocused and ready for the next pitch. It was one of those situations where you just cannot make mistakes at this level, when you make it this far mistakes will cost you the game. We made a lot of them.”
West Jeff got an RBI groundout by Taylor Kauser in the home half of the third. But the game got out of hand in the fourth as North Union collected seven hits and scored eight runs in the frame. West Jeff’s Kauser drove in Gatley in the fifth, but the Roughriders couldn’t cut the deficit below the 10-run mark.
“All of girls played hard,” Stevens said. “Annie pitched a good ball game, they’re just a good hitting ball club. So are we but our bats just didn’t come around like they should have. We really didn’t get down mentally, we’ve been down before and faced adversity, but we just couldn’t get it dialed in today.
“Once we got down, we just couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
Chris Miles can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 18 or via Twitter @MadPressSports.