FRONT ROYAL – Skyline’s softball team saved the suspense in its quest for a return to the Virginia High School League Class 3 state tournament.
The Hawks, hosting No. 3 William Monroe in Tuesday’s Region 3B semifinals, jumped all over the Green Dragons with nine runs in the first two innings, setting the stage for a comfortable 10-2 victory that booked Skyline a spot in next week’s state tournament and in Thursday’s regional championship.
Skyline, the second seed in the Region 3B tournament, will make the short trip across town to take on rival Warren County, the No. 1 seed, for the regional title game, with the winner earning a home game in next Tuesday’s state quarterfinals.
The Hawks, who reached the state semifinals last season, won the school’s first regional championship in any sport last spring, and have the chance to make it two in a row after Tuesday’s romp over Monroe.
“It was awesome,” Hawks senior Rachel Sirbaugh said after the win. “We came into this as a two-seed, which is not usual for us, but we knew that this road was gonna be harder than last year. There was gonna be no givens. Monroe is always a good team, they always give us the best game. This was a huge boost of confidence for us.”
Skyline (17-5) jumped all over Monroe, which didn’t help itself in the field early on, striking for five runs in the bottom of the first inning and four more in the second to put the game out of hand quickly.
Hawks freshman second baseman Grace Benson got things rolling with a clutch two-out, two-strike single that drove in the game’s first two runs and began a five-run Skyline rally in the bottom of the first.
The Hawks finished the day with 11 hits, led by junior Olivia Heflin’s three hits and four RBIs and Sirbaugh’s two singles. Eight of Skyline’s starters had at least one hit in the win, and the lone Hawk without a hit — leadoff hitter Abbey Lee — reached base four times.
“Coming into the season, we wanted to get back here. That was our goal,” Hawks junior pitcher Emma Benson said. “... We took it a game at a time the whole season and that’s what really helped. And tonight we really played as a team. Grace got it going and it just rallied us. We kept hitting and we didn’t let up at all.”
Skyline caught all of the breaks in its third meeting of the season against Monroe, which came after the two teams split a pair of regular-season games by identical scores of 7-5.
Heflin’s RBI single in the first inning — a bloop that was ruled fair as it fell along the line behind third base — came after the Dragons dropped the would-be third out on a foul ball along the first base line earlier in Heflin’s at-bat. A throwing error sent two more Skyline runs across the plate before the inning finally came to an end.
In the bottom of the second inning, Lee reached on another throwing error to lead off the frame and scored on a wild pitch. A pair of singles by Lexi Clatterbuck and Taylor Bowers on sharp grounders to the left side later in the inning glanced off an infielder’s glove, and Grace Benson drew a bases-loaded walk for her third RBI of the game.
That set up Heflin’s two-run single to right field that put Skyline up 9-0.
“It was our night,” said Heflin, who added a third RBI single in the fifth inning to make it 10-0. “The luck hadn’t been going our way but as we started doing better and putting up more runs, things started happening and falling our way.”
The run support was plenty for Emma Benson, who starred as Skyline’s starting shortstop the past two seasons but has since moved into the pitching circle after the graduation of former standout Tamara Grayson.
Benson scattered five hits and a walk on Tuesday, her only hiccup a two-run homer by Monroe senior Emma Pickett in the sixth inning.
“Before the game, I was really nervous,” Emma Benson said. “My nerves were really getting to me because last year, I wasn’t in the circle and stuff, but after the first inning, after we got the first few outs, I was like ‘all right, we got this.’ I calmed down and I relaxed and I just finally started pitching like I knew I could.”
Tuesday’s win was Skyline’s ninth in a row, and it was the sixth straight game the Hawks have scored 10 or more runs.
The contest also marked the fourth straight regional semifinal appearance for Skyline, which came up a win short of reaching the state tournament in 2016 and 2017.
“I think in the beginning of the season a lot of people had doubts that we would go back,” Heflin said of qualifying for the state tournament for the second straight year. “… But I think it’s huge, and we’ve gained a lot of respect for our softball program these last couple years.”
The Hawks have also gained valuable experience in playoff situations, something head coach John Ritter said has shown its value in recent weeks.
“I’ve noticed the last four or five games, they’re not as uptight, they’re a little more focused, and as a coach, you can tell on that part of it,” Ritter said. “It kind of makes you feel good when you come in and they’re where you want them to be and not somewhere else.”
Thursday’s matchup against Warren County in the Region 3B championship will be the third meeting of the season between the two rivals and the first such playoff meeting between the two schools. The Wildcats, the Class 3 Northwestern District champions, snapped a losing streak to Skyline that dated back to 2015 in the first matchup this season, which the Hawks avenged with a 10-0 win in the regular-season finale last week.
“We want it bad,” Sirbaugh said of the chance to win a second straight regional title before the Hawks knew the outcome of Warren County’s regional semifinal game against Spotsylvania. “I mean we know that we’re in states no matter what but we want to have that first home game, state game. We know how important that is, and no matter who we play, we’re gonna be ready for it.”