FRONT ROYAL — The first round of the cross-town softball clash between Class 3 Northwestern District frontrunners went to Skyline on Friday night.

The Hawks, hosting rival Warren County in a battle of unbeatens, got home runs from Ashton Spiker and Lexi Clatterbuck, another outstanding outing from sophomore pitcher Peyton Kaufman and solid defense behind her to pick up a 5-1 win that puts them in the driver’s seat in the district race at the midway point of the regular season.

Wins over Wildcats are always cause for celebration for Skyline, but Hawks senior Lexi Clatterbuck said every victory means a bit more this spring given the uncertainties that come with playing a season during a pandemic. The Hawks (6-0 overall and in league play), who have played every team in the district, are piling up the wins early.

“We’re doing really well,” Clatterbuck said. “… I don’t think we’ve had a team come out 6-0 at Skyline in a long time, so that’s big. We always normally start kind of slow and it was important this year, since we only have 12 games, to really get going fast.”

Skyline’s offense got going quickly against Warren County, as Spiker spotted the Hawks an early 1-0 lead with her solo home run to right-center off Warren County starter Jamie Kelly.

The Hawks added two more runs in the fourth inning when a Wildcat error with two outs allowed Olivia Lacombe (2-for-2, double) to score and extended the inning to make room for Tiara Ford’s RBI single. After Warren County scored its only run of the night on Kelly’s RBI single in the top of the fifth, Skyline answered immediately with Clatterbuck’s two-run homer to left-center in the bottom half.

Hawks head coach John Ritter said the confidence his team — which, like Warren County, reached the Class 3 state semifinals the last time a high school softball season was played in Virginia in 2019 — is building early is “a big thing for them right now.”

“I told them that as far as I know, there was never a group here that’s started 6-0. That’s big on their part,” Ritter said. “I think they have responded well to a lot of situations that they’ve been in, and if you can respond like that, it can take you a ways.”

Kaufman, who has thrown two no-hitters in six games this spring, was tough to crack again on Friday night. The sophomore right-hander gave up an earned run on six hits and two walks while striking out seven in the complete-game effort.

She worked out of jams in the first and fourth innings without allowing a run and stranded a total of seven runners in scoring position in the victory. Kaufman, who noted that she relied on her fastball away, changeup and screwball against the Wildcats, said afterward that the key to getting out of those tight spots unscathed was to “just buckle down and throw what pitch works for me.”

Ritter said his sophomore pitcher has “just been awesome” this season, and Clatterbuck too praised Kaufman’s performance so far this spring.

“I’m very proud of her, especially just being a young one, her first year on varsity. That’s a lot of pressure coming in,” Clatterbuck said. “There’s a lot of pressure pitching in general, but she’s doing very well. I’m really proud of her.”

Warren County head coach Ted McDaniel was pleased with the pitching of his own sophomore right-hander on Friday night, though the Wildcats couldn’t provide Kelly with the same level of run support as her counterpart.

The Wildcats stranded eight runners total in the loss, and came up empty in the first after putting two in scoring position with no outs and again in the fourth after loading the bases with one away and trailing 1-0.

Kaufman notched back-to-back strikeouts and a lineout to left after dealing a leadoff walk to Atori Lane (2-for-3, double) and allowing a single to Hailey Stiltner to open the game. Kaufman escaped damage in the fourth by picking up a strikeout and inducing a flyout to leave the bases full.

McDaniel said the Wildcats’ inability to deliver key hits in run-scoring situations was the “total difference in the game,” but he noted that his team’s 5-1 start — which includes a 4-1 mark in district play — has exceeded his preseason expectations for a squad that includes two freshmen and six sophomores.

“I had no idea at the start of the season that at the end of six games we’d be 5-1,” McDaniel said. “I think we grew up some. We’ve got a lot of young players and a lot of them, I think they faced a little adversity tonight and I think they’ll learn from this experience and mature as they go.”

Kelly tossed all six innings for Warren County and allowed three earned runs on six hits and three walks while striking out eight. Four of Skyline’s six hits went for extra bases.

“Jamie, I thought, was pitching well,” McDaniel said, “It’s just she missed with a couple pitches and got too much plate with them, and (the Hawks) do what good hitters do with mistakes.”

Ritter said Skyline’s defensive performance was its best of the season and noted that two plays in particular — when first baseman Kiley McGuire slapped a tag on a Wildcat runner on a throw that pulled her off the bag and when catcher Jillian Shannon picked off Lane after the speedster reached on a bunt single in the third — were the type that “can keep you out of trouble.”

“We’ve got to keep playing and playing and playing and getting better, and I don’t think we’ve hit our stride yet,” Ritter said. “I hope we haven’t.”

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