Grayson nearly perfect as Hawks blank Southampton in state quarterfinals

Skyline High School infielders surround pitcher Tamara Grayson after she pitched a near perfect game during the Class 3 state quarterfinals held Tuesday evening in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – A Skyline softball season full of firsts will make its next stop in Salem.

The Hawks, hosting Southampton in the program’s first-ever state quarterfinal game on Tuesday evening, got a nearly perfect effort from pitcher Tamara Grayson and continued their run of playoff dominance against the visiting Indians in a 4-0 victory. The win sends Skyline into Friday’s VHSL Class 3 state semifinal game against Tabb scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Moyer Sports Complex.

Tuesday’s win, Skyline’s 11th in a row, featured yet another lights-out playoff performance from Grayson – who came within an out of tossing a perfect game against the Indians – and came on the heels of the Hawks’ Region 3B championship last week.

“Real exciting to be one of the final four. I’m just the guy driving the bus, you know,” Hawks head coach John Ritter said. “They played their ass off. That’s probably the best defensive game we’ve played all year. Nothing they do surprises me. I’m past that now. It’s great for them. It was a goal they had set all year and they’ve been working for it.”

Grayson has yet to allow a run in four playoff games and was spectacular again against the Indians (19-4). The right-hander retired the first 20 batters she faced before a fielding error in the hole between short and third gave Southampton its first baserunner with two outs in the top of the seventh.

Skyline's Rachel Sirbaugh sprints to third during first inning action of the Class 3 state quarterfinals held Tuesday evening in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

A Maddie Simmons single on a line drive up the middle then spoiled Grayson’s no-hitter before the Skyline senior induced a groundout to seal the victory and strand two runners in scoring position.

After struggling – by her standards – through the first half of the 2018 season, Grayson has now posted seven shutouts in the last nine games.

“The postseason, she’s just been dominant,” Hawks junior catcher Rachel Sirbaugh said. “I mean it’s just nothing like it.

“I don’t know, she just woke up, I guess. I mean she’s always been able to pitch like that, but I think she finally realizes this is it. These last couple games are the end of her high school career and she just knows that we have the potential to win it all, so she just stepped up.”

Skyline’s offense spotted its starting pitcher two runs in the first inning and added a run each in the third and fourth innings. Grayson appeared to get stronger as the game went on and struck out five batters over the final three frames.

Skyline's Tamara Grayson fires a pitch during the Class 3 state quarterfinals held Tuesday evening in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

“When we start doing amazing things, I can just rest,” said Grayson, who struck out six and didn’t walk a batter. “I can just sit here, I can just breathe, I can be like, ‘I’m gonna throw this game. I’m gonna get as many strikeouts as I can,’ but in my head I know that my defense has got me. I try to be relaxed and once we start scoring runs I just get comfortable and then I start picking up the heat. I think if we get out early, I’m fine and I don’t have to stress so much.”

Aside from the error in the seventh, Skyline’s defense was stout, sporting flawless effort on its first 14 fielding chances in the game. Sophomore shortstop Emma Benson made a great over-the-shoulder grab in shallow left field to take away a hit in the third inning, and freshman second baseman Lexi Clatterbuck smothered a sinking liner in the fifth to keep Grayson’s perfect game intact.

The Hawks’ offense, known at times for its slow starts, struck quickly and aggressively against Southampton starting pitcher Mady Wood. Skyline put the leadoff batter on in each of the first four innings and generated four runs as a result.

“This season we’ve really made it a point to start from the first inning, because when you get those quick runs first inning, that gets the other team and we’re able to capitalize on that as the game goes on,” said Sirbaugh, who was 2-for-3 with a double and scored twice. “It’s just really important to jump on the first one, first inning, and just get those runs in early.”

Abbey Lee worked an eight-pitch walk off Wood to lead off the bottom of the first, and Sirbaugh followed up a Benson sacrifice bunt with a single to put runners on the corners for Clatterbuck. Facing an 0-2 count, Clatterbuck lofted a hit into center, and the ball rolled all the way to the fence after it skipped past Indians outfielder Diamond Jones, allowing Clatterbuck to cruise into third for a two-run triple.

Skyline shortstop Emma Benson runs forward to catch a short fly ball for an out during second inning action of the Class 3 state quarterfinals held Tuesday evening in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We just had to come out strong. We always talk about how we have to get it going in the first inning because that puts pressure on the other team and it just gives us momentum. It gives the whole lineup momentum,” said Clatterbuck, who finished with three RBIs.

“I was just looking for a base hit. No home runs, just a base hit to score those two runs. And it happened.”

Sirbaugh’s leadoff double in the third set up Clatterbuck’s sacrifice fly for a 3-0 Skyline lead, and the Hawks made it 4-0 in the fourth when Olivia Heflin drew a leadoff walk and later scored on Benson’s two-out single.

The Hawks (17-3) finished with nine hits off Wood – who was charged with four earned runs and dealt two walks while striking out three – with Lee and Sirbaugh leading the way with two apiece.

Skyline, which hasn’t lost a game since April 18, will leave the friendly confines of its home field – where the Hawks have played 10 of their last 12 games – to take on an unbeaten Tabb squad that beat William Monroe, 9-5, in the state quarterfinal round earlier on Tuesday.

Skyline pitcher Tamara Grayson, left, embraces catcher Rachel Sirbaugh after the final out of the Class 3 state quarterfinals held Tuesday evening in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

The Hawks are a victory away from their first state championship appearance.

“It honestly feels like winning the World Series in college softball. That’s what it feels like,” Grayson said. “Right now it has not hit me yet, but it’s a rush, and my adrenaline is so high right now.”