by Rob Grubbs
The Region 3-AAAAA Champion Starr’s Mill Panthers (21-5) opened the state softball tournament Wednesday with a tough first round matchup against the Ola Lady Mustangs (20-7). Coach Mark Williamson had his team peeking at the right time, and, after a sweep of Whitewater for the region crown, appeared on track for a repeat visit to Columbus for the finals, where they finished fourth last year. Ola, which finished fourth in a tough region, was not your typical four seed. They came with a deep lineup and quality pitching developed from the hard-fought games to escape their region. After Ola won game one easily, 12-3, Starr’s Mill took an early lead in game two only to see Ola get some late-game heroics to end their season and advance.
The Mustangs jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in game one and never looked back. Marley Holmes, who hit a pair of three-run homers in the game, expanded the lead to 5-0 in the fifth. Ola starting pitcher Kya Draper kept the Panthers hitless until Paige Andrews singled in the first run in the fourth inning. Starr’s Mill looked to make their move in the bottom of the fifth when Kate Ashmore drove in a run and Lea Duben scored on some aggressive baserunning. They had the tying run at the plate with one out, but Draper got the final two outs to end the threat.
The failed opportunity seemed to take the wind out of the Panther sails as Ola came back and scored seven runs on some shaky defense and the second three-run homer from Holmes.
Draper pitched a complete game for Ola, giving up four hits and striking out 10. Anna Kate Hare, Savannah English, and Holmes all had multiple hits for the potent Mustang offense.
For Starr’s Mill, Wakana Sato and Lauren Flanders each added a hit, and Alyssa Angelo played flawless defense at shortstop.
Game two saw the pitching matchup of game one hitting star sophomore Holmes versus junior Sato for the Panthers. Sato pitched some big games last year and was just getting back to form after an early-season injury.
The Panthers returned the favor from game one and jumped out to their own early lead, scoring two in the first on hits by Jordan Childress and Andrews. The momentum carried over to their gloves as well, Duben made a spectacular diving catch in centerfield to prevent leadoff hitter Alexis Poole from getting on base, and Angelo continued to make spectacular plays from short.
They plated two more runs in the third, and Sato, pitching with nerve and guile, kept the Mustang hitters off balance. Ola pecked away and tied the game in the fifth at 4-4. With elimination knocking on the door, the Panthers dug deep one last time and scored to take the lead on another clutch hit by Andrews.
However, their magic from last season seemed to fade as Ola got a two-run homer from Hayley Moore to end Starr’s Mill’s season.
For the five Panther seniors, Kennedy Dennis, Emily Nieuwstraten, Abbey Brady, Kailani Serapion, and Jordan Childress, the loss was the end of a chapter, but there is a solid nucleus returning next year, and with two veteran pitchers, the Coach Williamson and the team will be right back in the thick of the playoffs again next season.
Round one was equally unsuccessful for two other county teams.
Whitewater played host to Union Grove, and the Wolverines were rude guests, scoring a doubleheader sweep. Union Grove kept the Wildcats in check for most of game one, piling up a six-run lead before the Cats finally scratched out a run in the bottom of the sixth. That would be all they got in a 6-1 loss. Game two was slower starting as both teams scored in the second and not again until the sixth when Union Grove strung together 3 runs. Down to their last gasp, the Cats clawed for two runs, but could not tie it up in a 4-3 loss.
McIntosh’s run ended on the road with a pair of losses to the Jones County Greyhounds.
After the Chiefs opened the scoring in the series with one run in the top of the first of game one, the Greyhounds responded with six unanswered runs in a 6-1 win. In game two, they started slow with one run in the first, then exploded for seven runs in the second and third innings for a 15-0 win.