by Rob Grubbs
For head coach Mark Williamson and the Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers (28-7), they knew the task at hand was going to be tough. To get to the state softball tournament in Columbus, they had beat the 2017 state champions and the runners up in less than a week’s time.
After getting past Wayne County on Monday, they traveled to Locust Grove to face the top-ranked and defending champion Wildcats (25-5). On a night where they got great pitching had some offensive chances, the lost both hard fought games late to conclude the 2018 campaign.
In game one, the Panthers jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on a leadoff walk by Lauren Flanders, two sacrifices, and an infield single off the bat of Jolie Hester. The Wildcats responded immediately when Brooke McCubbin drilled a home run, her 11th of the season, to deep right center with Bailee Richardson on to give the Wildcats the lead.
Starr’s Mill starting pitcher Lilli Backes had to dig deep in the bottom of the fourth. After surrendering a leadoff walk to Chandler Mitchell, followed by Jamison Brockenbrough reaching on an error, she faced the top off the order with only one out. However, she escaped by getting the next two outs on balls that didn’t leave the infield.
After McCubbin had retired 10 Panthers in a row, Paige Andrews got their first hit since the opening frame to lead off the fifth. After a great defensive play by Wildcat third baseman that resulted in a double play, McCubbin got the third out with the tying run in scoring position.
Starr’s Mill was pesky and would not go away. They tied the game at 2-2 in the sixth when Hester’s triple scored senior Kate Ashmore. Williamson called for the squeeze play to take the lead, but Wildcat catcher Skyler Elkins made a great effort on the ensuing bunt and tagged the runner out trying to get back to third.
With the game on the line in the bottom of the seventh, Tagen Laveo led off with a single, was sacrificed to second, and stole third. Williamson elected to walk the next two hitters to face Kelly Kight with the bases loaded. Kight delivered the walk off win on the second pitch she saw – a solid single to left that ended game one with a Locust Grove 3-2 win
Despite the loss, Backes kept the Locust Grove lineup off balance by changing speeds and hitting her spots, but the plate discipline of the Wildcats eventually led to the victory.
On the relatively cool evening, both coaches went with their game one starter for the nightcap. This time the Wildcats got the lead first when Elkins hit a second inning home run. Starr’s Mill tried to answer immediately. After a leadoff double by Lester and a stolen base, the Panthers tried to squeeze in the tying run. Once again, the Locust Grove defense came up with the big play in a crucial moment to start their second double play off a Panther bunt to end the inning still ahead 1-0.
Brockenbrough led off the sixth with a walk, the first time the Wildcats had gotten the lead off hitter on base in the game. After a perfectly placed bunt by Laveo, Starr’s Mill catcher Ashmore cut down Brockenbrough trying to advance all the way to third. Laveo followed with a stolen base and Bailee Richardson drove her in for the additional insurance run.
After pitching 12 innings, McCubbin seemed to get stronger for Locust Grove. She struck out five of the last six Starr’s Mill batters to close out the three hit shutout and series win.
Backes pitched good enough to win both games, allowing only 11 hits and striking out eight. The freshman stared down the defending champions and didn’t blink. Sophomore Lester led the offense, going 4-for-5 with both RBIs.
For the Panthers, it will tough to replace the leadership and play of their four seniors, Alyssa Angelo, Wakana Sato, Lea Duben, and Ashmore. Williamson knows the caliber of player and person that will be moving on.
“It is a special group. They kept this team together, even up to the last out,” Williamson said. “They are not just great ballplayers, but great people off the field. They are going to be missed big time. It will be hard to replace the leadership they brought.”
Even with those departures, there will be a lot of talent returning to build around, including their top two pitchers, their leadoff hitter, and the corner infielders. Look for the Panthers to return to the playoff mix next season.