Starr’s Mill fends off Wayne Co. to advance in playoffs

Starr’s Mill fends off Wayne Co. to advance in playoffs

Lea Duben and the Lady Panthers advanced to the second round with a win over Wayne Co. (Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)

by Rob Grubbs

Starr’s Mill (28-5) drew a tough opponent in the first round of the state softball playoffs. The Wayne County Lady Yellow Jackets (17-15) were the class 5A runner up last year and returned a solid nucleus of players to challenge the Lady Panthers. After winning game one on Saturday in the weather delayed series, Starr’s Mill looked for the sweep in game two, but the Yellow Jackets created some two-out magic to force a third and deciding game. On Monday afternoon, they played the rubber match where Jolie Lester hit a two-out homerun that opened an offensive explosion that pushed the Panthers to the Sweet 16 with a 10-1 win.

After the heartbreak of the late loss on Saturday, head coach Mark Williamson knew they needed an early lead to quiet the Wayne County surge. Facing Yellow Jackets pitcher Hannah Stubbs for the third game in a row, they jumped out to a 3-0 behind RBI singles from three of their seniors, Wakana Sato, Alyssa Angelo and Lea Duben.

In the bottom of the fourth, Wayne County had four consecutive hard-hit balls off Starr’s Mill pitcher Lilli Backes and pulled within two at 3-1. The Yellow Jackets crowd gave their team energy and when Stubbs got two quick outs, the momentum seemed to be escaping the Panthers. Hester changed that with one swing, driving a deep home run to left center which was followed by eight consecutive hitters reaching base. When the dust had settled, the Lady Panthers had a 10-1 lead and only needed three outs to advance to the round of sweet sixteen.

Backes quickly closed out the game and the loss from Saturday was now a distant memory. Coach Williamson said after the game of the fourth inning rally, “One of our things is to answer back, any time the other team scores we have to respond, and we did it with two outs.” On his starting pitcher, he said “Lilli came out ready to play, she hit the outside corner today, and her changeup was on.”

The Panthers thought they had put this one away on Saturday. In game one, they got a complete game from Backes and came from behind in the fifth inning for an 8-3 win. The top three in the batting order, Lauren Flanders, Duben and Kate Ashmore went a combined 7-for-9 and scored seven of the eight runs in the victory.

Paige Andrews started game two in the circle that became pitching duel between her and Stubbs. Down 2-1 in the top of the seventh, Flanders hit a dramatic two-out double to tie the game and scored on an infield gaffe for a 3-2 lead that seemed to seal the series. But the Yellow Jackets scored two unearned runs with two outs for the 4-3 win that forced game three.

For the series, Backes only gave up four earned runs in 13 innings and got both wins. Flanders led the offense going 7-for-12 with six runs and 3 RBIs, while Duben finished with 5 RBIs on four hits. Duben also set the Starr’s Mill all-time record for runs scored in game one.

The road does not get any easier, next up for the Panthers is the defending state champion, Locust Grove Lady Wildcats (24-5). The two teams will play a doubleheader on Thursday to see who advances to Columbus. As Coach Williamson said, “No one is expects us to beat them, so it is up to us to go over there and prove some people wrong.”

In other softball playoff action, the Whitewater Lady Wildcats lost a tough game three to Ware County on Saturday to end their season while the Lady Chiefs from McIntosh got swept by Statesboro to conclude their 2018 campaign.