FRONT ROYAL – Warren County’s softball team finally got out of the first round of the Region 3B tournament, but not before the Wildcats suffered a scare on Thursday evening.
The Wildcats, who went 17-2 during the regular season and locked up the top seed in the regional tournament, needed a walk-off single from senior Jayda Saulsbury in the bottom of the seventh inning to top No. 8 Brentsville, 3-2, in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
A loss to the Tigers, who had won just four games this season and suffered a 14-2 loss to the Wildcats last Saturday, would’ve been a tough one to accept for a Warren County squad that had won 16 straight games before dropping its regular-season finale to Skyline on Tuesday and had won the Class 3 Northwestern District title.
Thoughts of last year’s first-round loss, as the third seed, to Culpeper County at home in the Region 3B tournament likely manifested themselves in the minds of more than a few Wildcats during Thursday’s game.
“Definitely mine,” Saulsbury replied when asked if any Wildcats’ thoughts wandered to last year’s upset loss, “because I just wanted to break tradition. Ever since I’ve been here we’ve been knocked out the first round, so I was like this would be nice, just go to round two.”
Brentsville, which had tested Warren County in a 5-2 loss in Front Royal earlier this season, made sure the Wildcats had to work to get to next Tuesday’s semifinal round against either No. 4 Spotsylvania or No. 5 John Marshall (those two teams met in their quarterfinal game on Friday).
The Tigers (4-17) made things uncomfortable for Warren County (18-2) when freshman Ellie Post launched a two-run home run off Wildcats senior pitcher Elizabeth Keener in the top of the third inning to give Brentsville a 2-0 lead.
“It was really nerve-wracking,” Wildcats junior center fielder Sabrina Perea said of playing from behind. “I was afraid because these last few years we’ve gotten to the regional game and we’ve lost. I was just like, ‘oh, this better not happen again. I really want to win.’”
Perea did her part to pull the Wildcats out of a funk on offense when she lifted a solo homer to left to cut Brentsville’s lead in half in the fourth inning.
Warren County tied it up in the fifth when Arianna Whited led off with a single, moved to third on a pair of wild pitches and scored on Morgan Coons’ infield single down the third-base line.
“I told the team, I said you stayed in there and you battled and that’s what counts,” said Wildcats head coach Ted McDaniel, who credited the Tigers with giving his team a fight. “This a very competitive group. They’ve got a lot of heart. I think we still had a little bit of hangover from that beating Skyline put on us. We came out; we were uptight. We really weren’t swinging the bats well. The swings weren’t what they normally are. We finally got loosened up on offense. … We just finally put everything together that we needed to put together.”
Brentsville got it in its own way with a pair of defensive blunders in the bottom of the seventh. An error allowed Warren County No. 9 hitter Karleigh Crabill to reach base to lead off the frame, and no one covered first base on Morgan Coons’ bunt single that was meant as a sacrifice.
Hailey Stiltner bunted both runners into scoring position for Saulsbury, who lined an 0-1 offering from Rachel Bush up the middle for the game-winning hit.
“I was kind of hoping Hailey would do it because I was struggling today,” Saulsbury said of the walk-off single, her only hit in four plate appearances. “I was struggling, but when I went up there I was like this is it, just try and fix my swing to where I can actually make good, solid contact because they’re both smart, they know how to run the bases, so I just had to hit the ball.”
Keener, who has been battling shoulder soreness in her pitching arm, stuck it out through all seven innings on Thursday and finished with 14 strikeouts. She retired eight in a row after Post’s homer, then worked out of a jam in the sixth after Post’s leadoff double and a single from Mara Brooks.
Keener struck out the next three batters in the sixth to strand two Tigers in scoring position.
“Clear mindset, just giving it your all,” Keener said of what it took to beat Brentsville, which she said broke the “curse” that had plagued the Wildcats in the regional tournament, “because this could be my last high school game, so I went out there with everything I could.”
In the other Region 3B quarterfinal game taking place in Front Royal, Skyline, hosting Manassas Park, saved the drama for another day. The Hawks, the No. 2 seed on the opposite side of the bracket from Warren County, blasted the Cougars 17-0 on Thursday to set up a semifinal meeting with No. 3 William Monroe in Front Royal on Tuesday.
Skyline put up eight runs in the bottom of the first inning and finished the night with 18 hits. Senior catcher Rachel Sirbaugh led the way with four hits – including a home run and a double – and four RBIs, with Grace Benson (2-for-3, double, three RBIs), Taylor Bowers (triple, two RBIs) and Alana Smith (2-for-3, double, two RBIs) also driving in multiple runs.
Emma Benson allowed two hits and a walk while striking out five over five innings pitched, and Mackenzie Amos tossed two hitless innings of relief.