FRONT ROYAL – The lengthy losing streak to its cross-town rival hung heavy on Warren County’s softball team.
The Wildcats’ skid against Skyline, which began back in 2015 and spanned seven straight games, was a topic that the players had talked about.
The seniors knew that they hadn’t beaten Skyline since they did so as eighth-graders on Warren County’s junior varsity team five seasons ago. Thoughts of ending the slide permeated the mind of junior Alegend Baltimore-Lane as she stepped into the batter’s box with a chance to halt the streak in the bottom of the seventh inning of Thursday night’s contest against the Hawks, as they likely did in the minds of many other Wildcats throughout the game.
So many times Warren County had come up on the wrong end of the thrilling finish that has become a requirement of the Front Royal rivalry. Things finally fell in the Wildcats’ favor on Thursday night when Baltimore-Lane’s walk-off single gave Warren County a 3-2 win.
“I’ve played Warren County softball for five years and this was probably my favorite game ever, in any sport we’ve ever played Skyline,” said Wildcats senior Morgan Coons, who had a pair of hits and two RBIs in the win. “We knew coming in that this was gonna be a tight game, a low-scoring game at that, and it just came down to who did what at the very end.”
What Warren County (13-1, 5-0 Class 3 Northwestern District) did was stick to the formula that has churned out 12 straight wins.
The Wildcats once again got tremendous pitching from senior Elizabeth Keener, who was coming off a pair of five-inning no-hitters heading into Thursday’s contest and hadn’t allowed an earned run in three weeks.
They backed their senior ace with solid defense, and though the Wildcats stranded 10 total baserunners, they got the key hits when they mattered most.
“I told them out there, I said ‘I can’t say enough good things about you guys. You rock,’” Warren County head coach Ted McDaniel said. “Every close game somebody’s stepping up, making the big hit or making the big defensive play or making the big pitch. And that’s what it takes to win.”
It was Baltimore-Lane’s turn to come up big on Thursday night.
Keener set the stage when she led off the bottom of the seventh inning by reaching on an error before exiting in favor of courtesy runner Chase Roltsch. Sabrina Perea followed by hitting a sharp line drive that short-hopped Skyline shortstop Lexi Clatterbuck, who tried to nab Roltsch on a close play at second base after knocking down the ball but saw the bang-bang play ruled in Warren County’s favor.
With two on and no one out, Baltimore-Lane took two straight balls from Skyline pitcher Emma Benson before yanking the third offering down the left-field line, sending the ball skipping all the way to the fence to easily score Roltsch for the game-winner.
“At first (McDaniel) was telling me to bunt and my bunting’s not 100 percent there,” Baltimore-Lane said. “I’m more confident in my hitting, so I was like ‘oh my God, I’m not gonna get the bunt down. I’m not gonna do it.’ And after the second ball, he was like ‘just hit away, do what you gotta do.’ Once again, didn’t see the ball, nothing. I just hit it, and it went.”
The walk-off hit rewarded yet another stifling effort in the circle by Keener, who went 26 straight innings without allowing an earned run before surrendering one on Benson’s sacrifice fly following Abbey Lee’s leadoff triple in the top of the fourth inning.
Skyline freshman Grace Benson drove in another run with a single with two outs in the top of the sixth inning to tie the game at 2-2, but that was the extent of the damage the Hawks mustered against Keener.
The Warren County right-hander allowed just four hits and a walk and struck out two in seven innings against a Hawks team that entered the game averaging 10.3 runs per contest.
“Skyline, they’re a good hitting team; they put the ball in play but Keener kept them off-balance where they weren’t hitting a whole lot of hard shots,” McDaniel said. “Now they did hit some, but overall we kept them contained.”
Warren County fared a little better while tallying 10 hits – including two each from Coons and catcher Hailey Stiltner – against Emma Benson, though prior to the seventh inning the Wildcats managed just a pair of runs on Coons’ RBI single in the second and her run-scoring double in the fourth.
Coons’ second hit ended with what would be the first of two controversial calls that fell in Warren County’s favor and factored heavily in the win. At the end of Coons’ double, Wildcat junior Ramsey Young was ruled to have safely dodged the tag on a close play at the plate, her run giving the Wildcats a 2-1 lead.
The other was the call at second base on Perea’s grounder to short in the bottom of the seventh inning that preceded the game-winning single.
Skyline (8-5, 2-2) head coach John Ritter appealed both calls, to no avail.
“A bad call is what decided the game. That’s not right,” Ritter said. “They’re a good team. I take nothing away from them. They played well, we played well, both girls pitched well; it just shouldn’t come down to the umpires.
“We played well,” Ritter added. “I told the girls I’m very proud of them, the way they played. I told Emma I was proud of the way she pitched. Both of us had a lot of opportunities, and good pitching will shut you down. And that’s kind of what happened.”
In addition to snapping the losing streak to Skyline, Thursday’s win was a big one for Warren County’s postseason picture. McDaniel said the Wildcats and the Hawks entered Thursday first and second in the Region 3B standings (which uses a power points system similar to football), with Warren County “way ahead” of their rivals in the race.
“Barring a total collapse on our part, we should have the number one seed for the region,” McDaniel said, “which will make a lot of difference because it’ll probably put (William) Monroe and Skyline on the opposite side of the bracket.”