by Rob Grubbs
The reigning Region 3-AAAAAA softball champion Whitewater Wildcats (20-4) traveled to Starr’s Mill (19-5) Tuesday night to defend their crown in the 2017 region finals. The two teams tied for first in the regular season, but Starr’s Mill gained home field advantage for the best of three championship series by virtue of a the tiebreaker. The Wildcats were looking to repeat, while the Panthers had not won a region title since 2005. In two dramatic games that got testy at times, Starr’s Mill broke their drought by sweeping Whitewater, 6-3 and 9-7. Both teams will move on in the state playoffs which start next week.
Starr’s Mill coach Mark Williamson went with his ace, Paige Andrews, in the circle, while Whitewater’s Robert Townsend countered with veteran Kinsey Sords. The Panthers jumped out to a quick lead as their first three hitters, Lauren Flanders, Lea Duben, and Kate Ashmore, all reached base and scored, two on a double by Jordan Childress.
The score remained 3-0 going to the top of the fourth, and Andrews was cruising, but the Wildcats clawed back. Lily Griffith and Katelyn Perry both singled, and Alexis Larrow crushed a double for Whitewater’s first two runs of the game. Raeghan Byrom doubled in Larrow and the game was tied 3-3.
Emma Vessell, who came in early to pitch for the Wildcats, held the Panthers to only one hit over the next four innings, but Laura Sellers greeted her with a single to start the 5th, and Childress followed with a long home run to put the Panthers were back on top. Flanders drove in the final run of the game with a single on an 0-2 pitch, the second time she accomplished that feat in the game.
Larrow led off the 6th inning with a single, but Andrews finished the game without another hit for the series-opening win.
Game two saw Townsend come back with Sords, while the Panthers went with lefty Wakana Sato. Sato played a vital role in the rotation last year but missed the first part of the season with an injury and is just getting back to form.
As in the opener, the Panthers jumped out to an early lead as Flanders and Duben both scored in the first inning on an Ashmore single. Undaunted, the defending champions showed their mettle by tying the game up on run-scoring singles by Byrom and Alexys Buffington and took the lead in the second inning on hits by Perry and Byrom.
Williamson stayed with Sato even through the rough first two innings.
“We knew she was getting hit, but she was not walking anyone,” he said. “We felt like those hits would eventually turn to outs as they game went on.”
It was a perfectly played strategy, as the Panthers chipped away at the lead. Sato completed four scoreless innings, and the defense made some big time plays. Emily Nieuwstraten started a double play in the 4th on a Sords line drive, and Alyssa Angelo started a picture perfect 6-4-3 double play in the 5th to end a scoring threat. The most entertaining play occurred when Griffith hit a line drive that Nieuwstraten caught to end the 6th. Thinking the inning was over, she rolled the ball to the circle on her way to the dugout, but the umpire said she trapped the line drive. An alert Childress pounced on the ball and raced to second for the force, sliding just ahead of the Whitewater runner. Sato pitched a complete game for the 9-7 victory.
The Panthers’ top two hitters, Flanders and Duben, got on base all ten of their plate appearances in game two as they constantly put pressure on the Whitewater defense. For the Wildcats, Byrom finished the day 5 for 7 with 4 RBI.
While Whitewater was disappointed, they have a lot to look forward to. They started the year with a young roster and improved greatly over the season. Their lineup continued to develop and jell.
Both teams qualified for the state tournament and will host first round series next week. Starr’s Mill will play Ola (20-6) on Tuesday, while Whitewater will await the final results in the Region 4-AAAAA tournament to learn their opponent.
McIntosh claimed the three seed coming out of the region with a Tuesday night sweep of the Griffin Bears. The Chiefs won game one 2-0 and took game two 5-2. They will open up the state playoffs on the road.
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