Skyline softball set to square off with unbeaten Tabb in state semifinals

Skyline's catcher Rachel Sirbaugh pats pitcher Tamara Grayson on the shoulder during the Class 3 state quarterfinals against Southampton Tuesday evening in Front Royal. Skyline will face Tabb in the Class 3 state semifinal game at noon on today at the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Two seasons of heartbreak, of coming up a win shy of reaching the state tournament once in 2016 and again the following year, have prepared Skyline’s softball team for what awaits this afternoon.

The Hawks, in the midst of the deepest run in the program’s 11-year history, are set to take on unbeaten Tabb in today’s noon semifinal game at the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem. The winner of today’s matchup – originally scheduled for 10 a.m. before its timeslot was swapped with the other semifinal game between Cave Spring and Liberty-Bedford – advances to Saturday morning’s state championship game at the same location.

For Skyline, which had never advanced further than the regional semifinals prior this season, it would be its first state title game appearance.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Skyline senior right fielder Lexi Grim said on Wednesday afternoon, a day before the Hawks were sent off on their trip south to Salem. “It started off at the beginning of the season as it was our dream, that was our goal, and now it’s a reality. We’ve worked hard for this and everything we’ve ever wanted is coming true. I know us seniors, this is what we’ve always wanted. And we’ve come up short the past the three years so we’re finally there, like we’ve really worked our way there. We deserve it.”

The Hawks (17-3) have earned their right to square off with the 24-0 Tigers, the champions of the Bay Rivers District and Region 3A who are coming off a 9-5 win over William Monroe in the state quarterfinals.

Skyline's left fielder Abby Lee, left, and shortstop Emma Benson run off the field at the end an inning during the Class 3 state quarterfinals held Tuesday evening in Front Royal. Skyline faces Tabb during the Class 3 state semifinal game today at noon at the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem. Rich Cooley/Daily

Skyline, the co-champs of the Class 3 Northwestern District after sharing the regular-season honors with Monroe, have won 11 straight games and have yet to allow a run in the playoffs. In Tuesday’s 4-0 quarterfinal win over Southampton, Hawks senior pitcher Tamara Grayson held a perfect game intact until one out remained in the contest.

Tabb, which holds victories over two common opponents in William Monroe and Southampton (twice, by scores of 2-1 and 6-0), figures to present Skyline with one of its toughest tests to date. But don’t expect that to force the Hawks into any major changes.

“I’m not a big ‘change’ person anyway,” Hawks head coach John Ritter said prior to the start of his team’s Wednesday practice. “I’ve got some stuff on (Tabb). I got some stuff on them from (Southampton coach Amy Davis) and I’ve got another person I’ll talk to today, and I’ll practice tomorrow and work on them things, but I’m not gonna change a whole lot with the approach. I mean, they’ve done very well with it. I’m just gonna keep it where we’re at.”

For the Hawks, that means a reliance on a stout defense and a starting pitcher in Grayson who seems to get better as the stage grows larger.

The senior right-hander has posted shutouts in each of Skyline’s four playoff games, and only an error with two outs in the top of the seventh kept her from perfection in Tuesday’s win.

“T has been doing so well. When she’s on her game, no one can hit off her,” Hawks freshman second baseman Lexi Clatterbuck said of Grayson, who has thrown a shutout in seven of her last nine games.

“Whenever T’s on her game it definitely gives us all confidence and it just makes us all play together as a whole better.”

Led by senior catcher Sydney Jacobsen and junior third baseman Kristen Malloy – who have combined for 20 RBIs in four games since the start of regionals – Tabb is averaging 11.6 runs per game this spring. The Tigers have scored 11 or more runs in 17 of 24 contests.

“They’re built on speed and they’re a good-hitting team,” Ritter said. “Now, they play some quality teams too. Whether they’ve seen anybody like (Grayson) or not, I don’t know. That’s what we’ll have to see.”

Tabb’s own pitching, backed by what Ritter said is a “very good” defense, has limited opponents to 2.3 runs per contest. The Tigers used two pitchers – junior Alyssa Lowe and freshman Hannah Maltos – on Tuesday against William Monroe, a game in which Tabb was out-hit 13-9 and allowed three home runs.

Ritter said it’s his understanding that Tabb has used both pitchers frequently throughout the season, and he doesn’t expect Tigers head coach Brian Verstynen to stray from that game plan against the Hawks.

Skyline’s offense has shaken its propensity for slow starts in the playoffs and enters the contest averaging 8.1 runs per game on the big bats of junior catcher Rachel Sirbaugh and Clatterbuck.

“The best thing they can do when they get there is jump on her quick,” Ritter said of Skyline’s offense and the prospect of facing two pitchers on Friday, “and if they’ve gotta make that change, let (the Tigers) make that change quick, and hope they can adapt to whatever the change is. I’m pretty confident in them on that.”

The Hawks also will have to adjust to life away from home, where they’ve played 10 of their last 11 games. Skyline has played only six games on the road this season (the Hawks are 5-1 in such games) due to rainouts.

“My conversation with them (Wednesday) was keep your same mindset, keep your confidence, keep working on what we’ve been working on,” Ritter said of playing on an unfamiliar field for just the second time since April 18. “I think it is different when you get away from home to play. We’re gonna have to see how we adapt to it and hopefully it’s good.”

The challenge of trying to knock off an unbeaten foe, Grim said, is one the Hawks are eager to face.

“I think it’d just be great to see a team like us come beat an undefeated team, a team who’s never seen states at all in program history,” she said. “It’s just the game everybody wants to see, like the upset everybody’s looking to watch, you know?”