FRONT ROYAL – Warren County softball coach Ted McDaniel suggested that his team might well have started to become known as the “Cardiac ’Cats.” It’s a nickname that certainly fits the Wildcats’ flair for the dramatic.
After needing a walk-off single from senior Jayda Saulsbury in last week’s Region 3B quarterfinals to avoid an upset at the hands of No. 8 Brentsville, the top-seeded Wildcats again got late-inning heroics in the regional semifinals on Tuesday against No. 4 Spotsylvania.
This time it was senior Elizabeth Keener who delivered the walk-off blow, an RBI double in the 10th inning that propelled Warren County to a 5-4 win and a spot in next week’s Virginia High School League Class 3 state tournament.
The Wildcats will host cross-town rival Skyline in Thursday’s Region 3B tournament championship game, with the winner earning a home game in next Tuesday’s state quarterfinals.
The win over Spotsylvania was the fifth walk-off the Wildcats have pulled off this spring.
“I don’t know. I guess we just like things to be exciting instead of easy,” Keener said with a laugh after the Wildcats’ latest magic trick.
“It’s huge because as you can tell, we haven’t been to the regional championships or states in forever,” she added, gesturing to the four banners that adorn the outfield fence at Warren County’s softball field, which recognize the regional championships won in 1976 and 1977 and the state titles won in 1984 and 1985. “It’s exciting. I just can’t wait to get to states and be there.”
Keener did her part to make sure the Wildcats would be playing next week.
Given the chance to break a 4-4 tie, which Spotsylvania created with a run in the sixth and three more in the seventh to force extra frames, the Warren County senior doubled home teammate Hailey Stiltner for the game-winning run to complete a two-out rally against Spotsylvania starting pitcher Carmen Rodgers in the bottom of the 10th inning.
“About time I could actually hit. I’ve been struggling,” said Keener, who had gone hitless in her first five at-bats on Tuesday. “I was like ‘this could possibly be my last at-bat, so just go up there and kill the ball, crush it.’ And it happened, thankfully.”
Before her game-winning hit, however, Keener gutted out 10 innings in the pitching circle. Fighting through soreness in her right pitching shoulder that left her in tears after the game, Keener allowed four runs (one earned) on 12 hits while striking out 13.
“Keener, I tell ya, of all the high school pitchers I’ve seen anywhere this year, I’d rather have her in the circle than anybody we’ve seen,” McDaniel said of his star pitcher, who was kept out of th circle for the past two seasons due to a shoulder injury. “Her arm was about the fall off out there but she hung in there and did the job. She is just, I can’t say enough good things about her. Then she’s been in a slump hitting lately but, man, she delivered when we absolutely had to have it. Man, I don’t know. This team’s got a lot of heart. I don’t know how we’ll do Thursday but tonight was a great victory for us. Going to states for the first time in I don’t know (how long).”
Warren County, which had beaten Spotsylvania 10-0 in the teams’ only regular-season meeting, built a 4-0 lead with single runs in the first and third innings and a pair of runs in the fourth.
Alegend Baltimore-Lane drove in the game’s first run with a single in the first and made it a 2-0 Wildcat lead with an RBI double in the third. Saulsbury’s two-run triple in the fourth made it a four-run lead.
Keener blanked the Knights until giving up a run in the sixth, and Spotsylvania knotted up the score in the seventh on Jordan Delaney’s two-run triple and Lilly Martinez’s RBI single during a two-out rally.
Warren County stranded two baserunners in the eighth and three in the ninth after loading the bases with no outs before generating the game-winning rally in the 10th.
Baltimore-Lane and Nikki Cockrell led the Wildcats’ 15-hit attack with three hits apiece, while Morgan Coons, Saulsbury and Sabrina Perea each had two hits.
“I can’t describe this year. It’s been so exciting,” McDaniel said. “The kids are great, the team is great. We pull together and when the game is on the line somebody steps up and does it. That’s the difference between winning and losing. I’ve been on both sides of these things and the whole team is just great.”
Whether the Wildcats turn to Keener in the circle again in the Region 3B championship game on Thursday is something that McDaniel said he’ll have to mull over.
“It would be great to win Thursday and host a game next week but her arm is more important. We’re in states either way. I’d hate to ride four hours to Yorktown or South Hill or wherever it might be, but either way her arm comes first,” McDaniel said, adding that he’s strongly considering resting Keener until next Tuesday’s state quarterfinals.
“We’ll have to do some soul searching. I’m sure she’ll tell me Thursday evening that she can do it, but that’s not really what I’m planning to do. Right now we’ll just have to see.”