Natalie Leffler was supposed to be in Western Maryland, celebrating her sister's graduation from Frostburg. But just about the time Jacki Leffler was accepting her diploma, Natalie was putting Reservoir in the record books.
"It was a really big emotional" discussion with her parents, said Leffler, who decided to forego the graduation and join her Reservoir teammates in the Class 3A East Region title game at Howard Saturday afternoon.
Leffler believes she made the right, though tough, decision.
The senior got a one-out double in the sixth and scored on Caroline Winand's double for the game's only run, giving Reservoir a 1-0 victory, its first regional championship and its first trip to the final four.
"I needed to get that hit for my sister, for myself and for my team," said Leffler, who also figured in the key defensive play of the game. "I am so proud of my sister but I wanted to show I missed graduation for a good reason."
This will be the "first banner on the wall" for the school's softball program since the school opened in 2002, said coach Julie Frisvold. She said she expected a battle with Howard, though her team had lost to the Lions, 6-0, earlier in the season. "We knew we could never underestimate Howard. They played a great game and we played a great game and today we came out on top."
Reservoir will face Northern of Calvert County in the state semifinal game at 7 p.m. on May 22 at Bachman Park in Glen Burnie. Northern beat Howard, 3-0, in last year's state championship game.
Leffler's run capped a pitcher's duel between Howard ace Kensey O'Neill and Reservoir's Rachel Brown, with the largest crowd at a softball game this season lining both sides of the field.
O'Neill struck out seven and gave up seven hits, but she scattered those hits, got strikeouts when she needed them and relied on good defensive plays behind her until the sixth. O'Neill struck out the leadoff batter before giving up a double to the left-field fence by Leffler. O'Neill got another strikeout, but Winand's two-out double in the gap between right and center pushed Leffler across the plate.
Winand, a sophomore, handled the pressure of the moment well, Frisvold said, as her team celebrated in right field long after the final out. "She stepped in the box and battled. I knew if she made contact, that ball was going to go, and Natalie on second is a smart baserunner."
After celebrating Reservoir's senior prom on Friday night, Brown said she tried to get a good night's sleep. "I knew I was going to have to bring my A game, and try to pitch a no-hitter if I could because that was the only we were going to win."
Brown didn't get her no-hitter — she allowed four — but she did not give up a hit until the fifth when Howard leadoff batter Sage McGrann sent a deep fly ball to left that hit the fence on a bounce.
Alexa Spearman's momentum carried her into the fence as she tried to run chase down the ball, and the fence toppled over. McGrann rounded second and headed to third. But Spearman recovered, and hit cutoff Amy Bresson, who fired to Leffler at third to get McGrann for the defensive play of the game.
Spearman had chased a long foul ball earlier in the game but didn't get to it. "I was distracted by the fans," she said. "I didn't let them get to me" on McGrann's hit.
"Alexa has come through so many times with clutch plays this season," said Frisvold.
Howard (15-6) had runners at first and second in the sixth and again in the seventh "but they never got past second again," said Leffler. Megan Maloney made a great catch deep in center field to help handcuff Howard in the seventh.
Brown "did a pretty good job of keeping us off the bases," said McGrann. "We had a great season but we are definitely going to have some regrets about this game."
Howard coach Chuck Rice, who will see 11 seniors graduate from this team, said that he might eventually say that it was a good showing by the Lions but "it doesn't feel so good right now. It was a tough loss."
But, he added, if Reservoir plays against Northern "the way the played against us, I think they have a great shot (at a state championship). I'm going to be rooting for them the whole way."
Reservoir had never made it past the second round of the playoffs in previous years, but this team is setting the standard for future teams, said Frisvold, whose squad is now 20-3.
"We are trying to mold our young players so they can understand what it means to be a winning team," she said.
Reservoir - 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 — 1 7 0
Howard - 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 — 0 4 2
2B: Re - Leffler, Winand; Ho - S. McGrannCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun