By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- As Skyline's Michala Craig approached the batter's box with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning and the winning run on third base against rival Warren County on Thursday, Hawks coach Frank Nelson pulled the sophomore aside and whispered a few inspiring words.
"I said 'listen, this is just like a Hollywood movie,'" Nelson recalled shortly after the game. "I said 'there's the winning run, you're up at bat, everybody is here.'"
Craig, who had struggled at the plate all evening against Wildcats pitcher Paige McLachlan, then stepped to the plate, with the three strikeouts and the groundout that marked her previous four at-bats still sitting in the back of her mind.
Showing patience, Craig watched as the first pitch from McLachlan missed the strike zone. On McLachlan's second offering of the at-bat, Craig gave Nelson the storybook ending he alluded to. The sophomore jumped on the pitch and sent the ball deep into center field, where it fell beyond the outstretched glove of Warren County centerfielder Ariel Asher, allowing Skyline's Carrie Robinson to cross the plate for the game-winning run in the Hawks' 3-2 victory.
"I really needed to get this hit," Craig replied when asked about her mindset as she approached the plate for her final at-bat. "I was just like 'I just want to get a piece of this ball.'"
Craig's game-winning hit capped an entertaining extra-inning affair that saw the Hawks (6-4) rally for a run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth after the Wildcats (6-3) seemingly had the game locked up.
With the game tied at 1-1 in the top of the ninth, Wildcats freshman Emma Wright reached on an error with one out and reached third base with two outs on a stolen base and a wild pitch.
Junior Cassie Green then shot a first-pitch offering from Hawks pitcher Sarah Beamer right back up the middle, and the ball deflected off Beamer's glove and into the hole between first and second base, allowing Wright to score.
But Skyline responded against McLachlan in the bottom of the ninth with a two-out rally of its own.
McLachlan, who had up to that point retired 13 straight Hawks batters, gave up a two-out double to Skyline's Allison Funk, setting up an RBI opportunity for Samantha Santmyers.
The sophomore came up with the big hit, as she laced a 3-1 pitch from McLachlan past diving shortstop Nicci Hutzell to plate the tying run. Hutzell was able to get her glove on the ball but it trickled into left field, giving Funk time to score.
"To be so close -- you take the lead and you're one out away ... that's why you play the third out," Wildcats coach Justin Stock said. "It's a shame to have it end this way. We knew it was going to be something like this, a tight game."
The loss spoiled an otherwise outstanding outing by McLachlan, who finished with 14 strikeouts in her 9 2/3 innings pitched. She allowed just six hits, and just one of her runs were earned.
Beamer was also solid for Skyline, as the senior tossed all 10 innings while allowing two runs (one earned) on five hits. She struck out four and didn't walk a batter, although she did hit three Wildcat hitters.
Both teams scored a run in the second inning before the pitchers settled into a groove.
Close games are nothing new between Skyline and Warren County, and Nelson wasn't at all surprised that Thursday's game required extra innings to decide the winner.
"This group of girls doesn't give up," Nelson said. "They don't give up, and you just can't ask for anything more."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org