It was a big fight atmosphere Starr’s Mill hosted Whitewater on Tuesday night. Fans filled the stands to witness the second game between the crosstown rivals.
The game carried extra meaning with the winner locking up the top seed heading into the Region 3-AAAAA tournament. Both teams came out swinging, but it was the Lady Panthers that secured a 7-3 victory.
The Panthers improved to 22-2 overall and 10-0 in the region. They earned the top seed as Whitewater suffered its third loss.
“The girls love playing at home and it is something about playing in front of the home crowd,” Panthers head coach Mark Williamson said.
The Wildcats jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on Starr’s Mill. In the first inning, Whitewater collected two hits, including a Bailey Vessell triple that scored Kyee Ricks. A batter later, Lily Griffith brought Vessell home with an RBI groundout.
Starr’s Mill responded in the bottom frame. Speedster Lauren Flanders led off with a single and stole second base. She reached third on a Lea Duben base hit. Next, catcher Kate Ashmore got aboard to load the bases.
After a quick Whitewater mound visit, Jolie Lester crushed a two-run single into right field as Flanders and Duben scored. Lilli Backes drove home Ashmore for the third run and Wakana Sato capped the four-run frame with a RBI groundout.
“They have been there before and I don’t think that they panicked,” Williamson said. “They came in and got a few runs. It kind of settled down from there.” With a 4-2 lead, Panther starter Paige Andrews found a rhythm in the circle. Andrews sat down seven of her last 11 batters and allowed three runs on the evening. In the fourth inning, she turned the ball over to Backes.
Backes shut the door with three scoreless frames. She didn’t allow a hit and struck out four batters en route to a save. She credited the ability to spot her fastball as the key to success.
“I had a more of a mindset to help the team and keep the balls low,” Backes said. “This game gives us the number one seed, and that means we would have the better draw going into the region tournament.”
Starr’s Mill added runs in the second and fifth innings to extend the lead. Duben drove in Flanders in the second, while Backes and Andrews helped themselves with back-to-back RBI singles in the fifth inning.
Backes paced the offense as she went 2-for-3 with 2 RBIs. Lester also collected 2 RBIs and Flanders stole 5 bases.
“The bats were looking good,” Williamson said. “If you keep getting that many hits, we will be in good situations.”
Whitewater attempted to stay close. Griffith drove in Vessell in the third inning. It was her second RBI, but the Wildcats couldn’t string together enough at-bats to reduce the deficit.
“We came out hot and thought we were going to hit the ball really well,” Wildcats head coach Robert Townsend said. “We did that, but the bats seemed to go cold on us and we didn’t make it happen.”
Whitewater sits two games ahead of McIntosh for the number two seed. They own the tiebreaker over the Chiefs and can clinch the region slot with a win over Griffin. Townsend believes his team will be ready to battle as they took many positives from the loss.
“We kind of got an idea of what we have to do next time,” Townsend said. “They are going to slap the ball and play a little ‘small ball’ against us. We got to prepare better and this gives us a better idea tonight.”
Starr’s Mill finishes its season against Fayette County and Riverdale. With the top seed locked up, Williamson hopes to rest some key players. He plans on starting Andrews more and giving Ashmore some time to recover from nagging injuries.
“We have been trying to give people a little rest later in the season,” Williamson said.
Both teams are likely to play again. They are the two best teams in the region and are on a collision course for the region championship. Whitewater believes they will be better in the next matchup.
“We got to take a lot more batting practice and focus on hitting,” Townsend said. “They have to respond to that.”