By Greg Brill - firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- Strasburg softball coach Suzanne Mathias said it was the best she has seen her team play in four years.
Clarke County coach Susan Grubbs praised her defense for backing freshman pitcher Sarah Herndon.
When two teams combine for one run without either pitcher loading up on strikeouts, the defenses take the spotlight.
An error at shortstop on Olivia Gore's ground ball to open the game was the only miscue by either team, and with a new catcher who probably knows Herndon a little bit better than anyone else on Clarke County's roster, the Eagles made a third-inning RBI double by Helen Good standup for a crucial 1-0 Bull Run District win on Friday night at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
While the game -- which took just an hour and eight minutes to play -- showcased good defense on both sides, the spot-on pitching by Herndon and Strasburg sophomore Katlyn Ayers helped things move along at its steady pace.
Though it was a tough loss, Mathias liked how her team competed.
"That's the best softball game I've seen my kids play in probably four years," Mathias said. "As far as fundamentals, as far as focus. Hitting the ball, just knowing what to do with the ball. And being confident -- my girls were confident. They wanted it and that made the big difference in the game [for us]."
Coming off an outing in which she was knocked out in the fourth inning of an 11-0 loss at Madison County on Tuesday, Herndon got a chance to redeem herself with another start in the circle against the Rams, who came into the game with a three-game win streak and unbeaten in district play.
Perhaps trying to give her team a little motivation, Grubbs changed up her defense against Strasburg (5-8, 2-1 Bull Run), with six players at new positions. One change involved putting senior third baseman Sam Herndon behind the plate to guide her sister. Grubbs had toyed with putting Sam Herndon at catcher to begin the season but left her at third base to keep an experienced infield intact.
Grubbs also moved Ashley Thorpe from first base to third, Chelsea Nelson from catcher to center field, Olivia Gore from center field to right field, Megan Rion returned as a starter in left field, and Good got a start at first base.
"We've been struggling with defense," Grubbs said. "We've been making too many errors. I've been telling these girls we're not going to [pitch] double-digit strikeouts. It's not like we got from Jordan [Wolford] last year. We've got to defend.
"I thought the girls did a nice job of playing new positions and making plays when we had to."
Sarah Herndon was certainly glad to look in for signs between pitches and see her older sister advising her what to throw next.
"This was [Sam's] first [start at catcher] and me and her work well together," Sarah Herndon said. "It helps."
Sarah Herndon pitched a six-hitter, throwing 58 of 73 pitches for strikes.
By trusting in her defense, Sarah Herndon never so much as ran the count to three balls against any batter. No walks and no errors behind her allowed Herndon, who struck out six, to keep Strasburg from the big inning.
The defense behind Ayers was just as ready. The Rams got a steady diet of ground balls forced by Ayers, and their 12 assists attributed to their heads-up play in the field.
After beginning the season at first base, Samantha St. Clair switched corner infield spots with Brooklyn Rush a few weeks back. Against Clarke County (9-4, 3-1), St. Clair was a vacuum (one putout, four assists) at third and also came up with a nifty fake to keep the Eagles from adding a run late in the game.
The Eagles had runners on second and third with one out in the sixth when Nelson tried to drive a run in with her bunt down the third-base side. St. Clair was on the play in a jiffy, faked a throw to first, and tossed to catcher Tiffany Milgrim, who caught Natalie Wright with the tag on her way back to third.
"When [Clarke County] did hit it, they hit it hard and my team backed it up [with defense]," Ayers said. "Samantha had that really good fake-throw, and it was good to see. I think everyone was really on top of things tonight."
Ayers, who allowed seven hits and one earned run, walked one, hit two batters, and struck out four. She threw 53 of her 78 pitches for strikes, and also drew praise in a losing cause.
"She's getting stronger as we go on," Mathias said. "And she's young. To get that kind of experience against a good team, that helps us going into Tuesday [when Strasburg plays Madison]."
The Eagles got the game's only run in the third. Rion grounded a single to right leading off, moved to second on Gore's sacrifice, to third on a passed ball, and scored when Good doubled to left-center.
Overall, Ayers pitched out of plenty of tight spots. Clarke County stranded 10 runners.
"[Ayers] did a good job, too," Grubbs said. "She got our girls to swing at her pitches and I really think her defense got her out of some jams, too.
"Both teams played very good defense. Fortunately for us, one run was able to stand up for us."
The Eagles also got a couple breaks late to keep Stasburg off the board.
With Allyson Ponn on first in the fifth inning, Ayers was called out by the plate umpire, who said Ayers' back foot made contact with the ball as she left the batter's box on her bunt. Ponn had to go back to first on the dead-ball play, then was called out on her steal attempt of second on a swipe-tag by shortstop Amy Hagerdon. Casey Spiker struck out to end the inning.
In the next inning, Ashleigh Smith sprinted to second as Milgrim swung and missed a high pitch for strike three. The base umpire ruled Smith, who reached second safely, out because she had taken a few steps back toward first. No tag was ever applied to Smith. That was the third out of the inning, and the Rams went in order in the seventh.
The Eagles had hits from seven different players. Smith (2-for-3) had the only multiple-hit game for either side and Siaurra Saville had a double for the Rams.