A rivalry was renewed on Tuesday night as the Whitewater Lady Wildcats hosted the Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers in an early region softball matchup.
Both teams looked to create distance in the Region 3-AAAAA standings and establish some momentum moving forward. However, it was Starr’s Mill that came out on top with an 8-0 victory in five innings.
The Panthers moved to 10-1 on the season behind timely hits and the dominance of freshman starting pitcher Lilli Backes. Whitewater snapped a 10-game winning streak as they suffered their first loss this year.
“It feels really good anytime you can beat a big rival like that,” Starr’s Mill head coach Mark Williamson said.
Backes dueled with Wildcat pitcher Emma Vessell in the circle and showed why she is the early front-runner for All-County Freshman of the Year. Backes pitched five scoreless innings and allowed just two hits to a formidable Wildcats lineup. She struck out four batters and avoided major trouble by mixing in her fastball and changeup successfully.
Whitewater had their chances early. Following an Alexys Buffington single, the Wildcats had runners on first and third base in the second inning. It was their best opportunity to get on the board against Backes.
Instead, Backes got Dylan Bronkhurst to pop out in foul territory and Kate Flanagan to strikeout swinging to end the threat.
“We haven’t had that strikeout pitcher in a while to get us out of those jams,” Williamson said. “We had to rely on defense in the past, and it’s nice to have someone to get six to eight strikeouts per game as it helps your defense.”
Starr’s Mill provided Backes some offense at the plate. In the third inning, Wakana Sato got it started with a single and came around to score after Buffington overthrew the third baseman on a pickoff attempt.
The ball sailed into left field as the Panthers took an early 1-0 lead. Two batters later, Lauren Flanders drew a walk and scored on a Lea Duben RBI single into center field. Kate Ashmore followed with an RBI double that brought Duben home.
Next, Jolie Lester added another single. Both she and Ashmore raced home on an error to propel the Panthers to a 5-0 advantage.
The Panthers went on to add to three more runs to their lead. In the fourth inning, Flanders drove home Kendall Robinson with an RBI single. Starr’s Mill also scored twice in the fifth inning to cap the victory.
Flanders went 1-for-2 with a walk and a RBI. Ashmore and Lester did the most damage as they went a combined 3-for-5 with a double and two singles. Their production helped fuel the middle of the lineup.
“For us, it is our favorite game of the year as we love beating Whitewater,” Flanders said. “This is the game we want to win. I think our whole lineup had hits one through nine. We got some runs in the third inning and we were able to use our speed to be a little more aggressive.”
Despite the loss, Whitewater head coach Robert Townsend felt his team took away some positives. After starting the season undefeated, the loss allows for the Wildcats to learn from some mistakes and continue to contend in a tough region.
“We are going to take it as a learning experience as we don’t want this to happen again,” Townsend said. “We’ve got to come ready to play, work, and eliminate our mistakes.”
Townsend elaborated that the loss will add fuel to fire for the next time the teams face each other. He believes his team will be fine and ready to roll again.
“We still got another shot and it’s still in our hands,” Townsend said. “It is the end that counts. Right now, it’s early in the season. If we can play good softball, we can meet them in the (region) championship game and it will be a good series.”
Whitewater returns to action against Griffin on Thursday. Starr’s Mill is also in region play with a game Thursday night against Fayette County.
The Panthers hope to continue their winning ways against the Tigers. They have outscored opponents 44-1 in region play this season, but know that everything counts more at the end of the season.
“It really means more in October,” Williamson said. “Although, this feels pretty dang good right now.”