Skyline softball falls to Warhill in regional semifinals

Skyline's shortstop Emma Benson turns to put a tag on Warhill's Taylor Nicholson on a second base steal attempt during fifth inning Region 3A East tournament semifinal action Thursday evening in Front Royal. Nicholson was safe on the play. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Skyline High School’s softball team saw its season end Thursday afternoon at the hands of Warhill and standout pitcher Keely Rochard for the second straight year.

The Hawks, hosting unbeaten Warhill in the Region 3A East semifinals, fell victim to yet another complete-game shutout from Rochard, who twirled the Lions to a 6-0 win that sent the defending state champs into a regional championship meeting on Friday against York.

The loss came exactly one year after Warhill blanked Skyline in the regional semifinals last season. In Thursday’s encore, Rochard limited the Hawks to one hit while striking out 15 to clinch a state tournament berth for the Lions (23-0).

“She surprised me,” Skyline head coach John Ritter said of the Lions’ senior right-hander. “She worked the corners pretty good. We worked on laying off the rise ball. We’ve gotta attack a little bit better, and we didn’t. But like I said, it’s not everyday you see somebody like her.”

Rochard entered Thursday’s contest with a sparkling 0.24 ERA and 309 strikeouts in 148 innings pitched this season, and improved on both ratios against Skyline (20-5) while posting Warhill’s 16th shutout of the spring. The senior’s lone hit allowed was an infield single from Natasha Grayson in the bottom of the second inning.

Skyline's Tamara Grayson, left, gives senior Jessica Sims a hug at the conclusion of their Region 3A East tournament semifinal against Warhill Thursday evening in Front Royal. Simms, who is the team's only senior, played her last game as Skyline fell to Warhill 6-0. Rich Cooley/Daily

Rochard also scattered a walk and a hit-by-pitch over her seven innings of work and retired the final 11 batters she faced after stranding a Skyline base runner in each of the first four innings.

Warhill head coach Tom Bunn called Rochard’s performance against the Hawks a “pretty regular” occurrence.

“That’s just standard Keely right there, and particularly this time of year it seems,” Bunn said. “She’s just pretty solid, always makes a big pitch. We might make a mistake or two – we had the error and hit batter – but she’s tough to get big innings against. And once we got up by three I felt they probably wouldn’t get the tying run to the plate again.”

Skyline starting pitcher Tamara Grayson did well to keep her team within striking distance before a three-run seventh inning from Warhill put the game out of reach. But the junior right-hander found instant trouble in the top of the first inning when Lions leadoff batter Taylor Nicholson sent the second pitch of the game over the fence in left for a solo home run.

“I’ll take the blame for that,” said Ritter, who called for an inside pitch to  Nicholson on an 0-1 count. “That girl, I knew a little bit about her but I was trying to get in on her hands and she just turned on it and drove it.”

Skyline catcher Rachel Sirbaugh holds the ball as she is unable to make a tag on Warhill's Emma Harris during a sixth inning squeeze play in the Region 3A East tournament semifinal in Front Royal Thursday evening. Rich Cooley/Daily

Nicholson, who drew a two-out walk in the third and scored on Olivia Schulz’s double off the fence in right for a 2-0 Warhill lead, finished the game with three walks and three runs scored in addition to her homer.

“She’s ridiculous. She’s the best position player I’ve seen this year,” Bunn said of the freshman shortstop. “… She just hits it so hard, so often, and gets the right trajectory for home runs a lot. We led off the first conference game with a homer too, so it was like OK, that might hold up, that might be enough. Two pitches in.”

The Lions added another run on an error in the sixth and gained a 6-0 advantage with three more in the seventh.

Emma Harris led off the seventh with a triple from the bottom of Warhill’s lineup and, following a Nicholson walk, scored on Kieran McClure’s bunt on a squeeze play with one out. Rochard and Lindsey Davis followed with back-to-back RBI singles to push the lead to six runs.

Tamara Grayson was charged with five earned runs on eight hits, three walks and 10 strikeouts over seven innings in the Hawks’ final contest of 2017.

Skyline pitcher Tamara Grayson walks off the field after the top of the seventh inning against Warhill during the Region 3A East tournament semifinal in Front Royal Thursday evening. Skyline fell 6-0 in the contest. Rich Cooley/Daily

“Tamara’s kept us in it all year,” Ritter said. “Great kid. She gives you a chance, and that’s what you’ve gotta have. You’ve gotta have a chance when you’re in these games.

“She had 128 strikeouts last year. She should be over (200) now. That’s a big difference. That just shows you how much she picked up from last year to this year to play. That makes me feel good that she’s put the effort in and stuff to do that. She’s just done such a good job for us.”

Thursday’s loss marks the third time Skyline has fallen in a regional semifinal game during the school’s 10-year history, and the second straight year the Hawks have come within a win of making their first state tournament appearance.

The Hawks, who won the Conference 28 tournament championship last week, will lose just one senior – Jessica Sims – to graduation at the end of the school year.

“I’m just proud of them,” Ritter said. “They did a really good job this year. They set a lot of highs. I know they wanted to go on and play, but I also know what to expect next year.”

Skyline's Alana Smith squats down at second base during an injury timeout of the Region 3A East tournament semifinal in Front Royal Thursday evening. Skyline fell to Warhill 6-0.Rich Cooley/Daily