Truthfully the Jonathan Alder softball team had nothing to lose and everything to gain in its Division II state semifinal game on Thursday, June 5, at Firestone Stadium in Akron.
At the beginning of the season nobody would have ever expected the Pioneers (28-1) to be playing in a D-II state semifinal. Their semifinal opponents on the other hand, the Panthers of Licking Valley (27-5) were the defending D-II state champions and returned nearly every member of that team this season and were looked as the hands-down favorite.
Alder embraced its role as underdog and went out and played loose and free in pulling the upset 4-3 in front of hundereds of home fans who made the more than two hour drive, to advance to the school’s first ever state championship game.
The Pioneers will play Lima Bath (28-1) for the D-II state championship at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 7, back at Firestone Stadium.
“I think being the underdog helped us,” Alder freshman Sasha Hamlin said. “We had nothing to lose, nobody expected us to win this game. They were the defending champions and everybody expected them to win it. They had the pressure on them, they knew they had to beat us.”
Licking Valley played tight and made uncharacteristic mistakes, a number of which directly led to Alder runs. In the top of the third inning, Valley’s All-Ohio pitcher Shelby McCombs allowed a leadoff single to Katie Lapp. Taylor Gaerke came to the plate and laid down a bunt that McCombs fielded. She spun around and fired a ball wide and high toward second base. The throw went all the way to the fence in center, allowing Lapp top score.
Brooke Foster followed with an RBI groundout, making the score 2-0 Pioneers.
“You’ve got to catch breaks every now and then and they did today and we didn’t,” Licking Valley coach Mark Paxton said. “I don’t think we were feeling any more pressure, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of our girls minds that we are the defending state champions.
“You talk about creating breaks we did a couple things there that created breaks for them and hurt us no doubt.”
Licking Valley answered with a pair of runs of their own in the bottom of the fourth when Kori Caughenbaugh delivered a 2-run single. The hit came with the bases loaded. Earlier in the game Alder pitcher Mady Watson had gotten herself out of a bases loaded jam without allowing a run.
“I was just trying to hit my locations,” Watson said. “I just felt confident out there.”
Alder snapped the 2-2 tie in the top of the sixth inning when freshman Kayla Fredendall led off the frame with a single, Maddie Johnston walked after a strikeout by Watson and then Hamlin delivered what turned out to be the game-winning hit. Hamlin had struckout in her first two at-bats against McCombs, but she quickly put those behind her.
She smashed a outside fastball over the head of the Valley rightfielder for a 2-run triple and a 4-2 Pioneers lead.
“Yea I’d say that was probably the biggest hit of my career,” Hamilin said. “I was definitely nervous but after my first two at-bats, I said I was going to put those out of my mind. I was going to do what I could to put the ball in play. I knew I could hit her.”
The late rally put the Pioneers ahead 4-2. The Panthers mounted their own late game rally. After Watson got the first two batters in the seventh, McCombs singled off the glove of Gaerke. The next batter Kori Locke hit a groundball third base, Lapp fielded it but her throw to first was low and got past Sam Headings at first. Wiith runners at second and third Sierra McConnell delivered an RBI single to center and brought the Panthers to within a run at 4-3.
Another walk and all of a sudden the bases were loaded with the tying run on third and the winning run at second, but Watson was able to get Payton Brownlee to ground out to Tori Walker at second base for the final out.
“I was just trying not to stress out about what was going on out there,” Watson said. “I was just trying to stay in my bubble.”
Licking Valley outhit the Pioneers 9-3, committed two fewer errors, but was unable to overcome a series of mental mistakes. A player forgot to tag up from third on a ball hit deep to center, a baserunner was picked off of second on a bunt play all to go along with McCombs huge throwing error.
“We knew today was going to be our biggest challenge hitting-wise, but we found a way to make things happen,” McGrew said. “I was just so proud of these girls.”
Chris Miles can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 18 or via Twitter @MadPressSports.