Having not been to the state final four as a program since 2005, Mt. Hebron found itself battling nerves at the onset of its 3A state semifinal game against Linganore at Bachman Park Tuesday night.
And the Lancers, which feature several seniors that were on the team that made the state championship game two years ago, were more than ready to capitalize on those jitters.
Scoring two runs in the first and three more in the second, Linganore (20-1) established an early lead on the Vikings and never relinquished it the rest of the way en route to a 10-3 victory that sets up a title game match-up against Northern this weekend.
“The funny thing, judging from our warm-up, we were a little nervous too at first, but I think coming out early and scoring like we did really eased things,” Linganore coach Andrea Poffinberger said. “It was like the girls were able to relax and just play softball.”
Mt. Hebron (16-4) ended up committing three errors in the first two innings and that was compounded by a combined four wild pitches or passed balls during that span. Before the Vikings could blink they were facing their largest deficit of the season.
“You think you’re not going to be nervous, but you get down here and it’s a little different,” Mt. Hebron coach Chuck Struhar said. “You can play all the high-level travel ball you want, but you don’t get this kind of atmosphere with 500 to 600 people (watching you) during the summer. And it definitely showed … we weren’t ourselves out there those first couple innings.”
While Mt. Hebron wasn't helping its cause, Linganore was doing its job by forcing the issue. Devan Puhl getting on base to lead off the bottom half of the first and then Kennedi Ambush following with an infield hit set things in motion. An overthrow and a single later in the inning by Madison Ambush then plated the runs.
For Linganore pitcher Katelyn Kosar, the early cushion was exactly what she needed to settle in.
“It was a lot of pressure just lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “It was really nice as a pitcher to have the quick lead, especially knowing that I have such a good defense behind me.”
With Kosar and the team’s defense handling its business with another scoreless inning in the top of the second, the Lancers got right back at it in the bottom half of the frame.
This time infield singles by Alex Bullard and Kennedi Ambush around a walk to Puhl set things up. A pair of wild pitches and an error then proceeded to push the runs across to make it 5-0.
“When you get this far in the tournament you have to know that little plays are going to count even more,” Poffinberger said. “My kids have done a great job all season of being selective, laying down bunts, moving and making smart base running plays. Today was no different.”
Linganore’s lead had grown to 6-0 by the time Mt. Hebron finally got its own offense going in the top of the fifth. Three straight singles by Kathryn Diaz, Evvie Buehlman and Rachel Cadigan loaded the bases with no outs. Rylee Kinsella would reach on an error to score the team’s first run of the game and then Maddie Bennett followed with an infield single to make it 6-2.
In the top of the sixth, the Vikings got even closer. This time an infield single by Alli Bluhm plated Anna Sutherland, who had led off with a walk.
“Toward the middle of the game we started hitting their pitcher a lot better and you could tell that none of us were giving up,” Bluhm said. “The first two innings were definitely rough, but I thought we never stopped giving 100 percent.”
Just when the game appeared to be tightening, however, Linganore issued the knockout blow. In the bottom of the sixth, against Vikings’ relief pitcher Maddie Bennett, the Lancers sent eight batters to the plate and scored four times.
Clutch RBI hits from Kosar, Madison Ambush and Jordan McLain did the heavy lifting in an inning that increased the Linganore lead to 10-3.
“Really, I didn't talk about anything special (before that at bat) other than let’s get a few more on here to ease the pitcher’s nerves for that last inning,” Poffinberger said. “A lot of props to Mt. Hebron because they continued to push and stay aggressive, forcing us to stay at the top of our game.”
Mt. Hebron ended up going 1-2-3 in the seventh to close things out.
Struhar said his girls simply ran into a team unlike anything they had seen during the regular season.
“Their slappers just ate us up and to be honest they are just really good at what they do,” Struhar said. “There’s not much you can do about it until you experience it. And, hopefully next year we can use that experience to come back here and be better because of it.”
While disappointed in the loss, Bluhm says it didn’t tarnish an otherwise banner year for the program.
“This season has been great, it really has,” Bluhm said. “With Struhar’s 300th win and us winning regionals after last year’s devastating loss … our goal was to get here to Bachman and we accomplished that. As a senior, that’s all I can ask for.”