GREENFORD - Coming to the plate with two runners in scoring position and one out in the top of the eighth inning of tied Division III district final on Thursday at South Range High School, the odds were on Carly Blair's side despite being hitless in three previous at-bats against Girard's Neco Maderitz.
"I had a good feeling because she has only had two games without a hit this season," East Palestine coach Dan McKinstry said. "I just felt like she was going to get a hit because after those first three times, I told her to relax, take a deep breath and see the ball and hit it. I wanted her to go back to the basics. As soon as it left the bat, I knew we were going to score two runs."
Blair knocked the ball in the right-center gap for a two-run double which staggered the Indians and a few minutes later the Bulldogs were celebrating the school's first district softball title with a 4-2 victory.
East Palestine catcher Nicole Kiehl can't get to the ball in time as Girard's Kylie Kulan scores Thursday. (Photo by Wayne Maris)
"Striking out the first time and then getting two fly outs isn't the way you want to start a district final," Blair said. "Getting that hit was really needed. Replaying it in my head is just the best feeling."
East Palestine (21-6) will face defending Div. III state title holders Warren Champion at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Massillon's Community Park in the regional semifinal. The Golden Flashes of Trumbull County, ranked fifth in the state coaches' softball poll, beat Kirtland 8-0 on Thursday in the Jefferson Area district final.
The Bulldogs got off to a good start when Paige Peterson socked an RBI double in the second inning to hand the winners their first run. East Palestine had two runners on with no outs following the RBI double, but Girard was able to steer clear of further trouble. It was to be the beginning of a trend for the Bulldogs who left 10 runners on base.
East Palestine 4, Girard 2
EP-Karly Pence, wp (7K, 0BB) and Nicole Kiehl.
GI-Neco Maderitz, lp (7K, 1BB) and Mickey Sigurani.
"After the seventh inning, I had looked at the score book and saw that we had left 10 on base," McKinstry said. "We had left two on in the first and two in the second and two in the fifth. I was like 'Man, we needed to get a couple of those in."
Girard (22-7) was retired in order in the first three innings by East Palestine junior Karly Pence. That changed in the fourth inning when Kylie Kulon started off the inning with a single. She advanced to second on a wild pitch. McKenzie Teter flied out to left, then Bryanna Jay hit an RBI single and advanced to third on a throwing error. The Indians took the lead when Jay came home on a passed ball.
"It's weird," Girard coach Renny Paolone said. "Usually it takes us one time through the lineup before we start hitting. I don't know why that is. We've done that all year long."
Despite having a tough go of it in the fourth inning, Pence, who struck out seven, kept her poise and allowed only three more Indians to reach base the rest of the way.
"I was going with the rise ball because I knew they had a tough line-up," Pence said. "I knew I had to jam them to get to them and mix in some offspeed pitches."
Girard tallied only three hits the entire game.
"Pence is a battler and she was very composed tonight," McKinstry said. "She's not the fastest pitcher, but she has good control. She doesn't get rattled."
Girard had all sorts of trouble fielding the ball. The Indians committed six errors and all of East Palestine's runs were unearned. The Bulldogs tied the game in the fifth when Logan Gatchel scored on the Indians' third error of the inning.
"When we have done that in games, those are the ones we have lost," Renny Paolone said. "In the six games we have lost, it has been mostly on unearned runs."
The first two batters in the eighth for the Bulldogs reached on errors as well.
East Palestine came into the tournament having lost out on the Inter-Tri County League upper tier title to South Range. The Bulldogs were expecting to get another shot at the Raiders in the district tournament, but that never materialized.
"When we heard South Range lost to Newton Falls (in the sectional), we weren't too worried," Blair said. "We were like, 'We don't know what Newton Falls has, so we were approaching it like a whole new game.' There wasn't any pressure on us. We just had to play our game."
McKinstry said the district title was the first since 1987 for an East Palestine girls' team ball sport (volleyball, basketball and softball). McKinstry coached the volleyball team to a district title that year.
Girard lost to Champion 1-0 in the regular season. The Indians also lost to nationally-ranked Poland by an 8-2 count earlier in the season.
"I feel no shame in losing to East Palestine," Paolone said. "That's a very good softball team."
The softball team was treated to ice cream at Handel's in Columbiana after the game.
Pence broke the record for wins in a season by an East Palestine softball pitcher. Her 18th win gives her one more than Chelsea Peterson who held the old mark of 17.
Indians' first baseman Bryanna Jay missed three catchable fly balls in foul territory in the first three innings. Desiree Walker made her pay for the mistake with a double in the second inning and Pence punished her with a single in the third inning.