By Dennis Atwood - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Warren County senior center fielder Ariel Asher is speedy on the basepaths, and speedy and sure-gloved in center field.
Asher used those skills to leg out an inside-the-park home run and make two spectacular fielding plays, providing major help in the No. 7 seed Wildcats' 3-2 win over No. 10 seed Loudoun Valley in the first round of the Region II softball tournament Monday afternoon.
It was Warren County's (13-9-1) first softball regional victory in 23 years, and extended their perfectly-timed end-of-season winning streak to six games.
"Going back two weeks, we had to beat Liberty both times," Wildcats coach Justin Stock said. "So, really, our playoffs started two week ago and they've definitely answered the challenge.
"Offense, defense, and pitching -- it's all been there, and we've peaked at the right time of the year."
Loudoun Valley (13-10) got on the board first as the first four batters in the second inning all made contact with first pitches from Paige McLachlan.
Kailey Liverman singled to center, followed by a Kylen Holtz (3-for-3) single to right. Liverman ended up on third base when Emma Wright misplayed the ball for an error.
Vikings Pitcher Sam Adams then sent a fly to deep right field, enabling Liverman to tag up and score an unearned run on the sacrifice fly.
With one out in the third inning, expecting Asher to bunt or slash the ball, the Vikings had their infield drawn in and their outfield drawn in nearly to the infield dirt.
Asher did slash it, over right-fielder Erika Elias' head. As the ball rolled to the right-field fence, Asher touched all the bases to tie the score, 1-1.
"That was amazing," Asher said. That hadn't happened [for me] ever."
With two outs, Kacie Stacks reached on an error when first baseman Liverman dropped third baseman Haley Cooper's throw of Stacks' bunt attempt.
Stacks stole second and scored on Nicci Hutzell's smoking liner that glanced off Cooper's glove for an RBI single and rolled into foul territory, putting the Wildcats up, 2-1.
Asher wasn't finished with using her speed, and added a great defensive play in the top of the fourth.
With one out and a runner on first, Adams bashed a ball to right center that had "extra bases" written all over it. But Asher dashed to her left onto the warning track, and snagged the ball as she slid into the wall, keeping the ball snugly in her mitt.
Next up, Addie Dieterich smashed a ball to nearly straight-away center that had "home run" written on it. This time, Asher dashed straight for the wall and gloved the ball over her shoulder, just before running into the barrier and recoiling to the ground.
But it wasn't as violent an encounter as say, Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper had in Los Angeles, and Asher accomplished her second consecutive web gem.
"No, I've never had two in row like that, " Asher said. "That was really scary. I didn't think I was going to get to those. I just closed my eyes and I got there."
Warren County flex player Callie Green, recovering from shoulder surgery after volleyball season, made the most of a rare opportunity at the plate, knocking a lead-off triple in the fifth, but was erased when an Asher safety squeeze bunt attempt failed, resulting in a 5-2-6 double play.
McLachlan gave up the tying run to Loudoun Valley in the top of the sixth.
Left-handed batter Leah Coles, in a rare play, used her speed to beat out a lead-off bunt that was fielded cleanly by McLachlan.
McKenna Holtz advanced Coles to second with a sac bunt, and Coles scampered to third on a McLachlan wild pitch.
Liverman then plated Cole with a sacrifice fly to right field, to knot the score at 2-2.
McLachlan's battery mate, catcher Cassie Green, stepped into the batters' box with two out in the bottom of sixth, but didn't spend much time there as she bashed Adams' first pitch on a line drive to the left-field fence for a double.
Next up, McLachlan (2-for-3, RBI) worked Adams to a 2-2 count and then lifted a soft fly to center field that found the ground and Cassie Green scored the go-ahead run.
"I was trying to either hit it up the middle or to right, to hopefully score [Green]," McLachlan said.
Back in the pitcher's circle with a precious one-run lead, McLachlan retired the Vikings in order and the Wildcats had their first softball regional win in more than two decades.
McLachlan (13-8-1) gave up six hits, two runs (one earned), struck out three and issued no walks in a complete-game outing.
"I had some really good, solid, defense behind me," McLachlan said. "There were some amazing catches. Everybody did great and it makes it a lot easier pitching, knowing that I have that solid defense behind me.
"This was definitely one of the best games in my career, especially for what was at stake and the way we took it, it was great."
Warren County travels on Tuesday to play No. 1 seed Powhatan (20-1) in a Region II quarterfinal.