By Brad Fauber - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Just a little over two weeks after Warren County defeated cross-town rival Skyline 1-0 in an extra-inning pitchers' duel, the Wildcats and the Hawks met for round two of softball action at Skyline on Thursday.
There was a little more offense this time around, but the end result was the same as the Wildcats picked up the 5-2 victory, using some timely hitting to end a three-game skid and capture the regular-season sweep over the rival Hawks.
"We knew we had to come in more focused. Last time we put the bat on the ball, but it was right at people," said Wildcats starting pitcher Nicole King. "This time -- at practice we were working on hitting gaps, and it worked out for us."
In the early going, it appeared Skyline (9-6, 7-1 Northwestern) would be the team with the offensive success.
After Hawks starting pitcher Sarah Beamer retired the side in order in the top of the first inning, Skyline seized early momentum on a two-out solo home run by senior Sabrie Neeb in the bottom of the frame to take a quick 1-0 lead.
No one, including Hawks coach Frank Nelson, could have guessed that Neeb's homer would be the only RBI hit of the evening for Skyline.
"I thought in the first inning when we bounced out and Sabrie hit that I home run, I thought, 'Man, we're going to be off to the races,'" Nelson said.
But it would be a struggle for the Hawks from the second inning on as Skyline stranded seven runners in the final six innings, five of which were in scoring position.
Much of Skyline's struggles had to do with the performance of King, who continuously showed she could work out of pressure situations. King finished with 10 strikeouts over seven innings while allowing four hits and six walks, three of which were intentional passes.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the game for King and the Wildcats came in the bottom of the fifth inning as Warren County clung to a 3-1 lead after taking the lead in the top half of the inning.
King issued back-to-back walks to Hannah Ritter and Beamer to open the bottom of the fifth before a sacrifice bunt by Tara Robinson put runners on second and third with one out.
Warren County (9-4, 1-3 Evergreen) elected to intentionally walk Neeb, but the fourth and final pitch of the at-bat went wide, allowing Ritter to score and cut the lead to 3-2.
The Wildcats then walked Taylor Henry to load the bases with one out, and King retired the next two Skyline batters to escape the inning with the lead intact.
"[King's] a bulldog -- she's tough," said Wildcats coach Justin Stock. "Nothing really fazes her too much. When we make a bad play, she's picks our team up."
"You have bases loaded and we couldn't score, but, you know, it's a game," Nelson said. "I told the girls, 'The longer you play, you're always going to have games like this. You just have to bounce back from it.'"
While Skyline struggled in run-scoring opportunities, Warren County made the most of its chances with runners on.
Trailing 1-0 entering the top of the fifth, Warren County had its first two batters reach base via a hit-by-pitch and error, respectively, to put runners on second and third with no outs.
Beamer, who struck out seven while allowing five hits over seven innings, struck out the next two batters and seemed to be on the verge of escaping the inning without any damage, but Taylor Longmire looped a two-run double down the first-base line to give Warren County a 2-1 lead.
King helped herself out with a double of her own to score Longmire to give the Wildcats a two-run cushion.
Warren County added a pair of insurance runs in the sixth on a two-out, two-run single by Kacie Stacks to set the winning margin.
"We've lost the last three games, and at times it's not been hitting, it's that timely hitting. We focused on, 'Hey, someone's got to step up when we get people on,'" Stock said. "The biggest thing was that it was a total team effort.
"[The win over Skyline] is important to the kids. It's a friendly rivalry, but it is war."