By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISONBURG -- Central softball coach Jill Yew was perplexed.
Just minutes after her team's 3-2 loss to Page County in the Shenandoah District tournament final, she was still searching for a clue as to why her team makes so many errors against the Panthers.
"Maybe it's the color blue," Yew said. "I don't know what it is. It's just something about Page County. We made seven or eight errors the last time we played them."
The Falcons made five errors in Thursday's final, including four in the infield. Errors proved costly in all three games the Falcons had with the Panthers this season.
Despite the errors, Central had its share of opportunities in the tournament final. Page County scored a run in both the second and third innings, both of which came on errors, to take a 2-0 lead.
The Falcons (11-8) battled back in the top of the fourth. Central senior Brea Hinegardner led off with a double. Caitlin Cummins followed with a single off of Page County starter Kristy McDonald to put runners at the corners.
Central's Sam Hedrick hit an RBI double to cut the lead to 2-1.
"I was really excited to get the hit," Hedrick said. "I've been in a bit of a slump lately and that gave me a real confidence boost. The coaches are always telling me I just need to relax, so I tried to do that. When I do that, it works every time."
Page County coach Alan Knight then made a pitching change by bringing in Kaitlyn Morris, and the move paid off for the Panthers. Morris was able to induce a groundout by Allie Lockhart before giving up an RBI groundout to Hillary Gochenour, tying the game at 2-2. Morris then struck out Michaela Fleming to end the inning.
Hinegardner said the pitching change added to the Falcons' confidence.
"We hit the ball well tonight. We hit better than we ever have against Page County," she said. "Honestly, I thought it was a great accomplishment taking their starting pitcher out so early. I felt like we should've been able to hit [Morris] as well.
"If we wouldn't have made errors, I know we would have won this game."
In the bottom of the fifth, the Panthers (21-1) responded with a run. Taylor Jenkins reached on an infield single, and Brittany Wolfe reached on an error. Caitlin Viafora laid down a perfect bunt by the third-base line to load the bases with no outs. Danni Short's sacrifice fly gave the Panthers the lead, but Wolfe tried to score as well and was thrown out at the plate. One batter later, Hinegardner got out of the jam on a groundout by Chasity Lucas.
Morris struck out five in three innings, but did get in some trouble in the top of the seventh. Lockhart drew a leadoff walk. Mikayla Viar followed with a sacrifice bunt, but Lockhart rounded second and was caught off the bag for a double play. Fleming popped out to end the game.
"We beat ourselves -- that's the bottom line," Yew said. "You can't make five errors against a ballclub like that."
Hinegardner allowed just five hits in the complete game and struck out four against the Panthers, who reached the Group A state quarterfinals last year.
The Falcons still qualified for next week's Region B tournament. Central will play at Madison County on Monday at 7 p.m. in the regional quarterfinals. The program went 0-20 just five years ago and has made steady progress since then. The last two years the Falcons finished in the top half of the Northwestern District. This year with the move back down to Group A, the team was able to break through and get the elusive regional berth.
Central has plenty of confidence that it could be a real factor in regionals next week.
"I told the girls [after the game], 'The season's not over yet,'" Hinegardner said. "This game didn't mean anything.
"Page [split with Madison County] in the regular season. I think this game can give us a lot of confidence."