Skyline’s playoff run comes to an end with loss to Tabb in state semifinals

Rich Cooley won first place in the Readers' Choice awards for sports photography and an honorable mention by Associated Press judges with this photo: Skyline's Alana Smith sits in a cloud of dust after she was tagged out at home plate during fourth inning action in the VHSL Class 3 state semifinal game against Tabb Friday afternoon in Salem. Rich Cooley/Daily

SALEM – For the first time in nearly two months, a team was too much for Skyline to handle.

The Hawks, playing in the first state semifinal softball game in program history, saw their magical playoff run end with a 6-0 loss to Tabb at the Moyer Sports Complex on Friday afternoon.

The unbeaten Tigers move on to face Cave Spring in Saturday’s VHSL Class 3 state championship game, while Skyline had its 11-game winning streak snapped a victory shy of becoming the first athletic program to play for a state title in the school’s short history.

Friday’s loss was the first for Skyline since April 18.

“I’m so proud of this team,” Hawks junior catcher Rachel Sirbaugh said, the dust plastered to her arms and the tears in her eyes portraying the aftermath of a hard-fought and disappointing loss. “We really came together this postseason. We just, we really thought we could do it. And we didn’t play bad at all.

Skyline's Emma Benson collides with Tabb's Madelyn Morinec breaking up a potential double play ball during the first inning of the VHSL Class 3 state semifinal game against Tabb Friday afternoon in Salem. Rich Cooley/Daily

“This season has been great. We’ve played so well the whole season. We’ve been hitting well, much better than last year. We played a great game, it just didn’t fall in our favor. That just happens.”

Skyline (17-4) kept within striking distance of handing the Tigers (25-0) their first loss of 2018 before things unraveled for the Hawks in the top of the seventh. Tabb, leading 1-0 entering the game’s final frame, broke out for five runs in the inning to all but seal the fate of a Skyline team that had done little damage against Tigers starting pitcher Alyssa Lowe.

The seventh began with a leadoff single by Ashley Adams – Tabb’s fourth leadoff hit of the game – before Hawks starting pitcher Tamara Grayson recorded consecutive outs on a sacrifice bunt and a lineout.

A fielder’s choice, in which Skyline shortstop Emma Benson opted to try to tag out – unsuccessfully – Adams between second and third instead of trying to throw out the speedy Madelyn Morinec at first extended the inning, and an intentional walk to Sydney Jacobsen loaded the bases for cleanup batter Kristen Malloy.

Malloy floated a pop-up just short of the second-base bag, and second baseman Lexi Clatterbuck couldn’t complete a lunging grab on what turned into a short two-run single and a 3-0 Tabb lead.

Skyline's Tamara Grayson, left, walks off the field with Robin Richardson after the VHSL Class 3 state semifinal game against Tabb Friday afternoon in Salem. Rich Cooley/Daily

“(Grayson) pitched well. That bloop ball killed us,” Hawks head coach John Ritter said. “It happens, and it’s like I told them at the end of the game, I said ‘do you know what the difference in the game was?’ … I said you all hit the ball to everybody and they found the gaps and stuff. That’s tough.”

The unconventional two-run single opened up things up for Tabb’s offense against Grayson, who had tossed 27 scoreless playoff innings before allowing a run in the top of the third.

Kaitlin Horton followed Malloy’s hit with her own RBI single, and Leah Overbay flared a two-run single into center to give the Tigers a 6-0 lead before Grayson and the Hawks finally got out of the inning.

Grayson said afterward she felt like she was hitting her spots in the inning and simply fell victim to a strong offensive team that suddenly found things rolling in its favor.

“We had two down and hitting’s contagious, and as soon as that (Malloy’s single) dropped in that just gave them the momentum,” Sirbaugh said. “I mean we were both pretty even there all the way but it just swung to them. It was hard but you don’t think for a second that you’re gonna lose. You can always come back. I mean they scored (five) runs in one inning, we could do the same thing. But that’s just how it fell.”

Skyline's Emma Benson is covered with dirt after a collison in the seventh inning. Rich Cooley/Daily

Sirbaugh kept Skyline’s slim hopes alive in the bottom of the seventh with a two-out single but was left at first, the last of 10 baserunners the Hawks left stranded in the loss.

Skyline, which was out-hit 10-6 in the loss, loaded the bases against Lowe in each of the first two innings and failed to capitalize both times. The Hawks also had a runner thrown out at the plate for the final out of the fourth.

“I don’t think it had a lot of impact,” Ritter said of the missed chances early. “As far as I was concerned, we were still having good at-bats. Maybe we were a little too aggressive the way we were attacking her but I don’t mind my girls going out and going after somebody like that.”

Grayson, who hadn’t allowed a run through Skyline’s first four playoff games entering Friday, surrendered the lead to Tabb in the third inning, when Amber Verstynen led off with a single and scored on Jacobsen’s one-out double down the left-field line.

Grayson threw all seven innings in her final high school game, allowing six earned runs on 10 hits and three walks (two intentional) while striking out five.

Skyline's third baseman Valarie Martin waits on a throw as Tabb's Sydney Jacobsen slides safely into third base during second inning action of the VHSL Class 3 state semifinal game against Tabb Friday afternoon in Salem. Rich Cooley/Daily

“Win or lose, I’m very proud of us,” Grayson said. “We’ve gone farther than anybody in Skyline history has ever gone and we accomplished so much stuff from this journey that this game, even though we lost and it was a tough loss for us, I will never regret it.”

Sirbaugh and junior left fielder Abbey Lee each had two hits to lead Skyline, while Clatterbuck and junior center fielder Alana Smith had a single apiece. Junior third baseman Valarie Martin reached safely twice on a pair of walks.

Skyline loses Grayson and fellow senior starter Lexi Grim to graduation from a squad that achieved history this season, including becoming the school’s first regional champion and reaching the program’s first state tournament.

“I’m very proud of them,” Ritter said. “I think they surprised a lot of people how good they were, you know, and we’re still young. We lose a couple and if we practice hard we can give ourselves an opportunity next year. But the things this group of girls has done the last three years to get themselves here, I’m just so proud of them.”

Skyline's Emma Benson turns a double play during the second inning of the VHSL Class 3 state semifinal game against Tabb Friday afternoon in Salem. Rich Cooley/Daily