By Tommy Keeler Jr.
FRONT ROYAL -- In the first three innings against Skyline, Millbrook softball coach Mandee Madden wasn't sure who was playing in the Carolina Blue uniforms. They certainly didn't resemble her squad, the one that entered Monday night's game undefeated.
However, in the last four innings Madden's Millbrook squad showed up and rallied for a 9-4 win over the Hawks in a Northwestern District contest. Both teams entered the game with 3-0 records in the district, and it was the first Millbrook softball win over Skyline in at least four years.
"I told them, literally, in the first three innings I almost disowned them, just because we weren't playing ball the way we normally play ball," Madden said. "I'm so proud of the way we came back."
The Hawks (5-4, 3-1 Northwestern) have won the Northwestern District title outright three of the last four years, and only James Wood had defeated them in the last four seasons -- until Monday night.
Madden said she felt her team was a little intimidated by Skyline and it showed in the early innings.
The Pioneers (7-0, 4-0 Northwestern) committed three errors in the first inning, which helped Skyline build a 3-0 lead. Sam Santmyers had the only hit of the inning, a two-run single.
The Hawks extended the lead to 4-0 on two more Millbrook errors in the bottom of the third.
"We just tried to get them settled, and to do the things we've been doing all year," Madden said. "When you're doing things that are making you successful, why change them?"
"I think we just needed one spark to get us going, and then we could do it," Millbrook senior Mackenzie Steele said. "I think we had it in our heads that Skyline always beats Millbrook, but once we got a spark we got some confidence."
It was Steele who provided that spark in the top of the fourth. With two outs, Hannah Lockhart singled off of Skyline starting pitcher Hannah Ritter. Steele followed with a two-run homer, the first of her career, to cut the lead to 4-2.
"I was just looking for a good pitch to hit," Steele said. "I'm really a singles hitter, but I guess I just got under it a little bit and it went."
Natalie Roy followed with a triple, and an RBI single Marissa Lee cut the lead to 4-3.
In the top of the fifth, Emily Ringer and Sarah Clark had back-to-back singles off of Ritter with one out. Lockhart doubled to right field to tie the game at 4-4.
Skyline's Carrie Robinson came in to relieve Ritter, but Steele greeted her with a two-run single to give the Pioneers a 6-4 lead.
"Hannah Ritter just ran out of steam," Skyline coach Frank Nelson said. "They deserved to win tonight. We didn't play well enough to deserve to win. We didn't do what I thought we could do."
The Pioneers added a two-run homer by Clark and an infield RBI single by Ringer to stretch the lead to 9-4 in the top of the sixth.
That was more than enough for Steele, who had a strong game in the circle. Steele got stronger as the game went on. She allowed only three hits and struck out 13, including six of the last seven batters she faced.
"I think once my offense and defense started backing me up, it felt really good to be in the circle," Steele said. "It felt like I had a lot of support and confidence out there."
Lockhart and Clark each had three hits to lead the Pioneers, and Steele reached base in all four plate appearances.
The win gives the Pioneers even more momentum early in the season.
"I think the biggest key is that this group of girls is not satisfied -- 7-0 -- and they've got bigger dreams," Madden said. "Our goal isn't to be undefeated, our goal is to be ready for conference play. We're going to try every night to do everything that we can to put ourselves in good position for that. They're trying to make it easy for themselves, which is great. I'm so proud of them -- so proud."
Nelson said his squad is still searching to find out who they want to be, and to find a leader.
"Leadership-wise, right now we're a bunch of indians with no chief," Nelson said. "I'm not saying chiefs, as in coaches. I'm saying somebody on the field that's going to say, 'Hey, get on my back and I'm going to take you where you need to be.' We've had that in past years, but we don't have that yet."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd