By Greg Brill - firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- Now the Strasburg softball team can turn its attention to Clarke County.
The Rams did their best not to overlook Bull Run District-winless Manassas Park on Monday night, stomping the Cougars 16-1 in a quarterfinal round game of the district tournament at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Strasburg (11-10) had the game well in hand after putting up five runs in the first inning. Of course, that was more than enough for ace Rams pitcher Katlyn Ayers to work with.
"We couldn't take them lightly knowing that, yeah, we're a stronger team," said Strasburg senior catcher Tiffany Milgrim, who went 3-for-3 with a pair of triples and two RBIs. "But we knew we couldn't come in and take [things] easily. We knew we still had to play hard.
"We had a goal to score like at least 10 [runs in the first], but five was cutting it."
The Rams move on to face Clarke County in the semifinals on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Madison County, with a Region B berth likely on the line. The teams have traded 1-0 wins on the other's field this season.
"We're ready and we're expecting another 1-0 game," Milgrim said. "We're not looking for a big score. We just want to play our game and score when we can."
Strasburg coach Suzanne Mathias had wondered how her team would handle being such a heavy favorite against Manassas Park.
"They were a little too loose for me," Mathias said. "It's tough and I understand [the approach], but we got the job done. We hit the ball well and I'm hoping that carries over to Wednesday."
Facing the Cougars (2-18 overall) was just the cure Strasburg needed coming off a 2-0 loss on senior night to Madison County on Thursday. Jordan Aylor tossed a perfect game to clinch the regular-season title for the Mountaineers -- the second time this season the Rams have had a perfect game thrown at them. Warren County's Nichole King also retired 21 straight in April.
An infield single by Allyson Ponn to begin the Strasburg first on Monday ended that drama right away and an RBI double by Ashleigh Smith followed to give Strasburg the lead for good.
The Rams scored another run on an error, a bases-loaded walk, and Kendall Rosenberger's two-run double to center.
Strasburg sent 10 batters to the plate in its five-run first and also batted around in the fourth when the Rams added five more runs.
While Strasburg was building its lead inning by inning, Ayers was locking the Cougars down with her speed from the circle. Ayers gave up a first-inning single before striking out six straight and eight batters total in the first three innings.
Ayers got her ninth strikeout to begin the fourth before giving up a walk and another single. The Cougars got their only run in the frame on a miscommunication on a toss-back between Milgrim and Ayers.
"We tried to save my arm some by tossing it [back] lightly," joked Milgrim.
With a double-digit lead, even Ponn got to work in a few innings pitched. In her first inning, the fifth, Ponn struck out the side in order on 10 pitches (one went foul). Ponn allowed just one hit and strike out five in her two innings, giving the Strasburg pitching pair 14 punchouts.
"I thought Allyson came in and did a good job," Mathias said. "Kate was throwing hard and throwing well. I think at one point, she struck out 9 out of 12 [batters]. Then Allyson came in and picked up where she left off."
On this night, though, the Rams put up lots of offense with plenty of players giving a contribution.
It was a night for Rosenberger and senior Megan Gum to shine. Rosenberger has been a regular in right field but had few at-bats. The junior went 1-for-3 with a double, a run scored and two RBIs against Manassas Park.
Then there's Gum. Missing a full week of practice last month due to the flu has set Gum back and limited her plate appearances this spring.
Mathias gave Gum a start in center field on Monday and had her hit in the No. 7 spot. Gum reached base three times and officially went 2-for-3 with a walk, two runs scored, and an RBI in her final home game.
"I was very excited because I got to play and start," Gum said. "And I got hits. It wasn't all that emotional -- that was back [last] Thursday [the loss to Madison County]."
Mathias has also coached Gum in volleyball, where she was a key contributor on the back row last fall for Strasburg's Group A Final 4 team.
"She missed a whole week of practice and that set her back," Mathias said. "When you've got kids that are here every single day and working hard, they're going to be a step [ahead]. That's what's hurt Megan this year, and I feel bad for her because she's a senior."
Two runs shy of the 15-run margin needed to end things early, the Rams got the needed tallies in the sixth. Casey Spiker hit a slap-single leading off and Ponn singled to center. Junior Quirsten Martoncik -- known as "Q" by her teammates -- hit for herself after getting the start in right field. Martoncik made the most of a rare at-bat by driving an infield hit to the left side for an RBI. Brooklyn Rush then ended the game with her fourth hit to plate Ponn.
All told, the Rams had 18 hits. Rush (4-for-5, three runs scored, and four RBIs) produced the biggest bat, and Ponn (3-for-5, three runs scored) and Ayers (2-for-3, two runs scored, RBI) also provided production.
Mathias must now use today's practice as a tune-up for Wednesday's crucial matchup with Clarke County, coached by good friend Susan Grubbs. Sparing a major upset later Wednesday, when Madison County hosts Rappahannock County, the winner of the Clarke County/Strasburg game moves on to the Region B tournament. The loser calls it a season.
"We're ready," Mathias said. "I mean, we know it's going to be a close game. I think [the winner] is going to be who stays relaxed and makes the plays throughout the entire 21 outs. If we can hit the ball and keep our defense how it is, we'll be fine."