By Ben Brooks - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- When rivals Warren County and Skyline high schools get together on the softball diamond, there's a good chance the game's going to be close and low-scoring.
That's why no one was surprised to see Wildcats coach Justin Stock call for a safety squeeze in the second inning of Thursday night's non-district game at Skyline High School.
As it turned out, Valery Eller's bunt that drove in Nicci Hutzell with the go-ahead run was all the support Nicole King needed. But just to make sure, Eller blasted a three-run homer for insurance two innings later to lead the Wildcats to a 4-0 victory, their second over their Front Royal neighbors this season.
"I was just trying to get it in play," said Eller, who had missed four days of school and one game last week because she was sick.
Eller did much more than put the ball in play. Saddled with an 0-2 count, the junior second baseman lined Sarah Beamer's pitch over the fence in left-center.
"I really didn't know it was out when I hit it," Eller said. "I didn't know it until my first-base coach told me to take a lap."
With the way King was pitching, a four-run lead, even with half the game left to play, was more than enough to warrant an early victory lap. The sophomore held the Hawks to three hits and struck out 13 without issuing a walk to shut out Skyline for the second time this season. The Wildcats (9-5) won this season's previous meeting, 1-0. Prior to Thursday, every game between the two teams -- all Wildcat wins -- had been decided by one run.
King, who struck out all nine Hawks at least once, said playing against a rival always adds motivation. The fact that Skyline features a top-caliber pitcher in Beamer makes it even greater.
"When there's another good pitcher out there, I think I push myself even more to hit my spots," King said. "That's because they always call it a pitcher's duel."
"She's been a constant for us this year," Stock said of King. "She got ahead in the count. The few times when she did get down, she was able to come back."
Skyline (10-5) put just one runner in scoring position all game. That came in the fourth on Sabrie Neeb's two-out double to center. However, King got the next batter, Kaitlin Robinson, on a check-swing roller to first base to end the inning.
Skyline coach Richard Armstrong recognized King's dominance against the Hawks, but he also felt like his team gave her some help.
On Eller's second-inning squeeze bunt, it appeared that Beamer had time, after cleanly fielding it, to go home. Instead, the freshman took the sure out at first. Prior to Eller's bunt, King grounded to third base. Neeb saw Hutzell stray too far off second and fired over to get the lead runner. Hutzell, however, avoided a rundown and reached third safely.
"We put them in situations where they could make a play and they did," Armstrong said. "We just didn't communicate, and it cost us."
Beamer also limited the Wildcats to three hits. She struck out six, although only two after the second inning. The Wildcats, who had struggled at the plate in recent games, did make better contact. Skyline right fielder Tommi Michael took away another Warren County scoring opportunity when she made a sliding catch to rob Eller of another RBI in the sixth.
Though he'd like nothing better to do than break through against the rival Wildcats, Armstrong can take solace in his team's spot atop the Northwestern District at the halfway point of league play.
"It's a big rivalry game and certainly you want to beat them and earn those bragging rights," Armstrong said. "But we've still got the district schedule ahead of us. We hold our destiny in our own hands."