By Jeff Nations
NOKESVILLE -- Twice delayed, Warren County's softball team would not be denied in Wednesday's Evergreen District tournament championship game against Kettle Run.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats, who had to play their way into the four-team Evergreen tournament by winning three regular-season district games last week, continued their dazzling late-season surge with a 9-1 victory over Kettle Run in a game twice delayed by weather before finally ending early with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning.
"We had to win Thursday against Liberty just to get into the tournament," Wildcats coach Justin Stock said. "Our playoffs really started last Monday. We had to win Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and then two this week. So they've really stepped up to the challenge."
The challenge against second-seeded Kettle Run appeared serious, at least before Warren County (12-9-1) stepped to the plate in the top of the first inning. The Cougars had won both regular-season meetings, including a 10-2 thrashing that was the Wildcats' last loss before their current winning streak took flight.
"I really think we had a lot to prove," Stock said. "We've won four in a row. Our last loss this year, we did not play very well at all. We had six errors and kind of had a little in-house fighting. We got that resolved and since that game we have been playing very, very well."
The Wildcats also got a bit of extra motivation Wednesday when the all-district team was announced -- no Warren County players were selected for the first team, and Stock said he and his squad did indeed feel "slighted a little" by that.
Properly motivated, the Wildcats jumped on Kettle Run starting pitcher Kaitlin Munda in the top of the first. Emma Wright hit a hot shot to third base that glanced away for an infield single, and Kacie Stacks followed with a bunt single to put to runners on. Nicci Hutzell then smacked a run-scoring single to left field before Cassie Green drove in two more runs with a single to right-center as Warren County grabbed a quick 3-0 lead.
Green said the Wildcats benefited from an old teammate -- former Warren County standout pitcher Nicole King, who just completed her freshman season at the University of New Haven, threw batting practice to her old high school squad on Tuesday.
"I think that gave us the speed adjustment that we needed," Green said. "[Munda's] not as fast as Nicole is, but we hit Nicole pretty well yesterday."
The Cougars tried to answer right away, as Forrest Poland stroked a one-out double to get into scoring position. On out later, Kettle Run's Shelby Steigmaier ripped a sizzling liner right back at Wildcats starting pitcher Paige McLachlan, who knocked down the shot and smoothly completed the throw to first for the final out of the inning.
McLachlan also got some help from the Wildcats' rock-solid defense, which turned a pair of nifty double plays to squelch potential rallies after play resumed following a 30-minute delay for thunder. In the third, Wildcats second baseman Brooke Post speared Poland's liner for an out before tossing the ball to second to double up Munda before she could get back.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Cougars had runners at first and second when Carissa Brizzi slapped a hard grounder to Stacks at shortstop. The Wildcats junior tagged the lead runner before snapping off a throw across the diamond to first to complete an inning-inning double play.
"They find ways to get out of innings," Stock said. "They've done an excellent job. We've moved kids around during the course of the season -- it's kind of been patchwork, and we've settled on this defense about the last three weeks since that last Kettle Run game."
Before that second double play, Warren County padded its lead in the top of the fourth with a four-run rally. Dallas Crawford got it started with a one-out bunt single and Ariel Asher followed with another infield single. One out later, Stacks hit a comebacker to Munda for a fielder's choice. Munda opted to try for the force at third, but her throw got away from Claire Miclat for an error. Two runs scored and Stacks ended up at third, and she soon came home on a wild pitch.
Hutzell kept the rally going with a long double to center, and Green drove her in with a run-scoring single.
Kettle Run finally broke through for a run in the fifth on Debbie Stuart's RBI single, but the Wildcats came right back with two runs in the top of the sixth. McLachlan plated both with a two-run single.
"We started off a little rough in our district, going 0-4, but we've picked it up with our bats and our defense has always been really solid," McLachlan said. "It's a great feeling."
Kettle Run's Jasmine Webster was at the plate with one out in the bottom of the sixth when a lightning sighting forced another halt, and continued lightning eventually prompted officials to call the game early.
For the Wildcats, Hutzell had two doubles among her team-high three hits. Green had two hits and three RBIs. Wright, Stacks and Asher chipped in two hits apiece as the Wildcats pounded out 13 hits in six innings.
Warren County will host Loudoun Valley in Monday' opening round of the Region II tournament.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>