By Ben Brooks - firstname.lastname@example.org
BERRYVILLE -- Each time it escaped a Clarke County threat, the Strasburg High School softball team seemed to gain more confidence.
Finally, in the top of the seventh inning, the Rams made the Eagles pay for those missed scoring opportunities. Siaura Saville's double to the fence in left field brought home Casey Spiker with the game's first run, and Strasburg held off a late Clarke County rally to take an important 1-0 Bull Run District victory on Friday afternoon at Grubbs Field.
The win gave Strasburg (7-2) a half-game lead over the Eagles (6-2) for second place in the district, although Clarke County has two more league games remaining. The Rams have just one game left. Both teams play league-leading Madison County next week.
Strasburg coach Suzanne Mathias knew that finishing up the regular season against the two teams ahead of her team in the standings might not be easy, but it sure put the Rams in position to have some say.
"It's good, but nerve-racking at the same time," Mathias said. "Playing them back to back is tough, but you've got to focus on the first one."
With the two teams seemingly headed for extras after six scoreless innings, Strasburg finally got to Eagles freshman pitcher Sarah Herndon. Spiker led off the seventh with a bunt down the third-base line. Clarke County third baseman Ashley Thorpe fielded the ball cleanly, but no one was at first to take the throw. Saville stepped to the plate. She showed bunt, but took a first-pitch ball as Spiker stole second base. Given the green light to hit, Saville then ripped Herndon's next offering deep to left.
"As soon as Casey got to second, coach Mathias let me go, and I was so happy," Saville said. "It was a beautiful pitch."
The Rams (10-9 overall) missed a chance to add to their lead with Saville in scoring position and no outs. It nearly cost them. Strasburg pitcher Katlyn Ayers made sure it didn't.
Clarke County's Megan Rion started a two-out rally in the bottom of the seventh with a single over first base. Olivia Gore then hit a slow dribbler down the third-base line that stayed fair. By the end of the play, the Eagles had runners on second and third and a chance to win the game with a base hit.
But just as she had all game long, Ayers shut the door. The sophomore struck out Clarke County's Sam Herndon to end the game.
"Kate didn't back down," Mathias said.
"It was so stressful," Ayers said of the last inning. "You've got to make sure your pitches are working, especially against their top hitters. You don't want to give them anything sweet to hit. I actually think it helps make me concentrate more. You just do what you can to stop them."
The bottom of the seventh was a microcosm of the game for the Eagles, who defeated the Rams earlier this season by the same 1-0 score.
"That was the story of the game," Eagles coach Susan Grubbs said when told that her team stranded seven runners in scoring position. "We're just not capitalizing on our chances and getting key hits. Ayers pitched a good game. She made our batters swing at her pitches."
Clarke County (12-5 overall) had five hits, two in the final inning. Ayers struck out eight and escaped jams in both the second and fourth, when the Eagles put runners on second and third with one out.
Herndon was also impressive. She had a perfect game through 3 2/3 innings. She scattered six hits and struck out 10.
As Grubbs reminded her team, there's still plenty to play for. Though hopes of an outright regular-season title are lost, wins in their final two games guarantee the Eagles no worse than a tie for second place heading into the district tournament.
"We just have to work harder," said Eagles senior shortstop Amy Hagerdon, who hit a one-out triple in the sixth but was left stranded. "We have a tough opponent in Madison on Monday. We just have to come out strong."