By Jerry Holsworth - firstname.lastname@example.org
MADISON -- Strasburg and Clarke County's girls softball teams split their regular season meetings, so the atmosphere was tense when they squared off in the Bull Run District tournament semifinals at Madison County.
Add to that two dominating young pitchers, and the stage was set for a nail-biter. The Eagles were able to take advantage of three straight hits in the bottom of the first to take a 1-0 lead and eventually beat the Rams 4-0.
The four-run finish was deceiving, though. The game remained 1-0 through 6 1/2 innings before Clarke County was able to capitalize on a pair of Strasburg errors to add three runs in the sixth.
Even that didn't break the tension. The Rams responded by loading the bases in their half of the seventh, and came within one blast over the fence of tying the game and sending it into extra innings.
"That last inning was really tense," Clarke County pitcher Sarah Herndon said. "But we managed to get the three outs we needed. They're a very good team, and any time they get the bases loaded it's going to be tense."
Up until the final two innings, the game was a pitcher's duel between Herndon and Strasburg starter Katlyn Ayers.
"We just weren't getting any key hits," Ayers said. "We were making contact, though. We were just hitting it right to them. I thought that I pitched a pretty good game, but this is a team sport, so losing is still a bummer."
The Eagles jumped ahead early thanks to a clutch hit to right field in the bottom of the first by Ashley Thorpe that scored Helen Good.
"I just cleared my mind and focused on the ball," Thorpe said. "When I saw it get out of the infield I was really excited. That really meant a lot to us to get that first run. I think that it had a big effect on our defense. After that I thought we really settled down and played well for the rest of the game."
Considering the history of these two teams, that first inning run by Clarke County had a huge effect on both of them.
"After that first run we began to believe that we were in control," Clarke County shortstop Amy Hagerdon said. "We knew that we could play with them and we also knew that we had the advantage."
That single run also had an effect on Strasburg's psyche.
"After they got that first run we really started to worry," Ayers said. "Each of our games were one-run games, and we knew that we were going to have to step up and play a lot harder."
That's exactly what the Rams did. Ayers and her teammates kept the Eagles off the scoreboard for the next five innings, and Ayers pitched a near flawless game in the process. The Strasburg sophomore struck out seven, scattered six hits and walked just two for the Rams.
Herndon, however, was just as tough on the Strasburg batters. The Clarke County freshman didn't allow a Strasburg hit until the fourth inning. She ended the game by giving up just two hits and a pair of walks in the complete game shutout.
The Eagles were naturally elated with the win. The victory gives them an automatic Region B berth in next week's tournament.
"Nobody expected us to be in this situation at the beginning of the season," Clarke County coach Susan Grubbs said. "We lost five seniors, but we gained six freshmen that have really made a difference for us this season. All six of them are starting in some capacity. We didn't have to rebuild after all. We just reloaded."
The loss was equally devastating for Strasburg and especially for Rams starting catcher Tiffany Milgrim. Her tears in the dugout after the game didn't just represent the end of the season, but the end of an era both for her and for Strasburg softball. Milgrim has been on the Ram team in some role for six years.
"Tiffany has been with us as either a player or a manager since she was in the seventh grade," Strasburg coach Suzanne Mathias said. "It's going to be impossible to replace her, and it's been really tough to face. I told her that it's the end of a chapter in her life, and those kinds of things are always emotional."
"This is really tough," Milgrim said. "Strasburg softball has been a part of my life for so long that it's going to be hard to say goodbye. I wouldn't have wanted to play for anyone else."