By Dennis Atwood - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Friday evening's play-in game of the Northwestern District softball tournament was a highly unlikely rematch of Wednesday's James Wood-Handley game. The result was the same.
The Judges get to wear their uniforms again, with a 2-1 win, on two James Wood errors in the bottom of the eighth inning. The only difference was that Friday's game went eight innings, instead of the regulation seven on Wednesday.
The squads had split their regular season head-to-head matchups.
"If we're going to win, they're going to be low-scoring games," Handley coach Tim Mondell said. "We are doing what we need to do to win. As I said to Lauren [Yaider] tonight, 'Keep your composure. Games are not won in the first or second inning. They're won late in the game.'"
The Judges won a coin toss to be the designated home team.
Senior pitcher Chelsea Hamric started strong for the Judges, striking out the side in the first inning, but she threw 19 pitches in the effort, with two 3-2 counts, one 2-2 count, plus two foul balls.
"I was mixing up my pitches a little too much," Hamric said. "I had to keep them on their toes and I didn't want to give the same pitch too much, but I was missing the corners somewhat."
But Hamric persevered, facing the minimum three batters in six of the remaining seven innings, with the only exception to the three-and-out pattern coming in the third frame.
With one out, James Wood shortstop Felicity Eiland worked Hamric to a 3-2 count, then hit a one-hopper over third baseman Jody Shipman's glove into left field for the Colonels' first hit of the game.
Eiland advanced to second when Hamric's third pitch to Megan Christian got by catcher Yaider for a passed ball.
Christian bunted Hamric's next pitch, nudging a head-high mini-pop two feet directly in front of the plate.
Yaider dove for the ball and got it in her glove, but it popped out when the glove hit the ground. Yaider couldn't decide where to try to make a play and threw the ball to shortstop Megan Strother, whose throw to the plate was late, as Eiland crossed the dish with the first run of the game and Christian ended up on second base.
"[The ball] was in my glove until I knocked it out," Yaider said. "When I dove, I hit my glove too hard [on the ground] so my glove rolled over top of it, so I had no chance of catching it and it was confusing as to where to throw the ball."
Whitney Dennis' sac bunt sent Christian to third and Morgan Sykes flied out to end the inning.
Yaider atoned for her fielding flub when she led off the sixth by lashing Lauren Myers first pitch on a line drive to the base of the left-field fence for a stand-up double.
Strother laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance Yaider to third, but Hamric was unable to help her own cause, popping out to short.
Designated player Ali Fritts then designated a hot shot just inside third base, driving in Yaider with the tying run.
"I had to make up for my attitude and I had to prove myself," Yaider said. "I got really upset [about the error] and thought it was over, then I realized our team could come together. I figured I had to get the mood into a good one and do what I was asked and what I knew how to do. I was looking for anything, anything [to hit]."
Each pitcher retired the side in the seventh, with Myers striking out the bottom of the Handley lineup on 11 pitches to send the game into extra innings.
Myers raised the Colonels' hopes by leading off the top of the eighth with a single.
But those hopes were short-lived as first baseman Morgan McCarthy stroked a hard grounder to shortstop Strother, who was close enough to step on second and make the toss to first for the 6-3 double play.
Hamric then struck out pinch-hitter Dana Holzapfel on three pitches.
Yaider led off again for the Judges in the bottom half of eighth and hit a grounder to Christian, now playing shortstop. Christian over-threw first base and Yaider ended up on second.
Strother hit a come-backer to Myers who tossed to first for the out.
Then, in an eerie repeat of Wednesday's scenario, McCarthy overthrew third base trying to cut down Yaider, who motored across home plate with the winning run.
Neither pitcher gave up a walk. Hamric gave up one unearned run on three hits, while striking out nine to earn her third win. She is the only pitcher the Judges have used in all 21 games this season.
"I'm really proud of the way we played and came together even though we had a bit of a rough time trying to keep the ball in play," Hamric said. "We really came through in the end."
The Judges will suit up again to play first-place Sherando on Saturday at 1 at Skyline in a semifinal game.
Hamric will start in the pitchers' circle again for Handley, a mere 18 hours after she struck out Hotzapfel on three pitches in the last Colonels' at-bat of the season.
"Chelsea [Hamric] pitched a whale of a game. We executed and manufactured runs well with the short game, and Megan Strother with her bunts, setting up the first run," Mondell said. "It was good to see our seniors come through, but [Megan] Strother, a sophomore, is worried only about one thing, and she told me before she came up to bat [in the sixth inning], she said 'This time I'll execute,' and I said, 'I know you will'. We're playing well defensively behind Chelsea. That's why we're able to win these games."
"We had a 1-0 lead in both games and couldn't hold it," Colonels coach Ted McDaniel said. "It always hurts when you get into a playoff game like this and lose on errors. Scoring runs has been a problem for us all year long. In the last four games Lauren [Meyers] has pitched, she's not walked a batter or hit a batter. She's been pitching through pain. She's got torn rib cartilage low on the left side. Her ERA is near 2.80. I'm proud of our team for giving an all-out effort. They really left everything on the field."