Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers head coach Mark Williamson rushed to the mound in the sixth inning. He had to talk to his starting pitcher Lilli Backes.
After a 10-pitch sequence against McIntosh pitcher Rebecca Muh, Williamson sensed his freshman lefty was almost out of gas. With junior Paige Andrews already warm, he was ready to make a pitching change.
Williamson never got the chance. During the brief discussion, Backes convinced him to stay in the game.
“She seemed to gut it out in the sixth and seventh innings,” Williamson said. “We had another game like that and she basically said, ‘I am not coming out.’ It is good to have that competitive drive in her.”
The decision paid off as Backes recorded the last five outs en route to a 3-0 victory over McIntosh. Starr’s Mill improved to 16-1 and remains unbeaten in region play.
Backes shut down McIntosh by keeping her pitches down in the zone. She allowed four hits and struck out six batters in her complete game victory. McIntosh left five runners on base as they fell to 6-12 on the season.
“I was working low as I wanted to keep the ball on the ground,” Backes said. “I wanted to battle through and keep going.”
Muh matched Backes throughout the game. She was masterful as she allowed four hits and collected 11 strikeouts. She allowed three runs (two earned) courtesy of timely hitting from the Panthers.
Lauren Flanders set the tempo with a first inning run. After a leadoff single, she zoomed around the bases as McIntosh committed two throwing errors. She slid under the tag at home plate to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead.
Starr’s Mill added another run after Jolie Lester scored on Backes’ RBI double. The two-run advantage swayed the momentum into the Panthers dugout.
“I was making quick decisions,” Flanders said. “I saw the ball on the ground and I took a shot. I knew I had time, for a little bit, as it was running away from them.”
McIntosh continued to battle back. In the third inning, the Chiefs put the tying run on base via an Ashlyn Gaines double, but Backes got Emma Dunlap to strikeout and CassiDee Rotolo to pop out to end the threat.
Two innings later, Starr’s Mill capitalized on another throwing mistake as Sydney Blair reached base. She stole second and came home to score on a Lester RBI single to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead.
“We preach quality at-bats a lot,” Williamson said. “They did a good job of battling off pitches and working the count.”
The Chiefs had their best opportunity to score in the seventh inning. After collecting back-to-back singles, Brooke Burnett came up with the game on the line. She saw a couple pitches, before ripping a fastball towards second base. The ball wouldn’t reach the outfield as Flanders snagged it to end the game. The key defensive play was one of many from the sophomore infielder. She also took away a single in the first inning with a terrific diving stop.
“It is just being quick on my feet,” Flanders said. “I know I’ve got a lot of good players behind me, so I can take chances like that.”
McIntosh head coach Carlie Anderson was proud of her team. She knows they will be a tough out once the region tournament starts.
“Rebecca (Muh) did a great job in the circle tonight and behind the plate Ashlyn (Gaines) played well,” Anderson said. “We had good hits at times, it is just about putting them together and being smart on the bases. I thought we competed well and just had some mistakes that allowed them to score.”
The Chiefs return home to face Griffin next. The game will be big in deciding who has the advantage for the third region spot. Starr’s Mill faces Jonesboro in another region matchup.
Both teams could face off again this season it and prove fans with another classic contest.
“I am looking forward to playing them again and keep facing the good competition,” Backes said.
Williamson agreed. He said his team is focused on winning the region title for the second year in a row.
“Hopefully, we can get Whitewater again and get the one seed,” Williamson said. “We would get to play the four seed and it’s McIntosh and Whitewater battling to play us. It’s big if we can get that one seed going into the tournament.”
To see more photos from the game, click here.