Through the first four innings of Wednesday’s 4A North regional semifinal, Howard had Sherwood in a position it hadn’t been in all season — playing from behind.
The Lions offense was stringing hits together and pitcher Kayli Paugh was successfully navigating through the undefeated Warriors powerful line-up on the way to establishing a 3-1 lead.
But just as it seemed Howard had the defending 4A state champs up against the wall, Sherwood dug down and found an answer.
Scoring four times in the bottom of the fifth, including clutch RBI singles from Nicole Stockinger (3-4, double, triple, 2 RBI) and Mary Beth Bidwick, the Warriors reclaimed the lead and never looked back again en route to a 7-3 victory.
“Having not been in that situation before, I don’t think they really knew how to react at first. And I think they could see it in themselves that they were getting down and they were trying to figure out what they had to do to get back,” Sherwood coach Ashley Barber-Strunk said. “But whatever it was, they realized they had to come together as a team and find that fire and when they did that you could see it — the diving plays on defense, the hits — everything turned around.”
While Howard (19-2-1) was unable to muster a comeback after losing its lead, the team’s offensive effort throughout the game against Sherwood (17-0) pitcher Meggie Dejter created plenty of chances. The Lions had at least one hit in every inning but one on the way to finishing with 10 on the day, which is the most Sherwood has allowed all spring.
In the end, it was simply scoring enough runs to keep up with the host Warriors that proved to be the problem.
“We had our ‘A’ game hitting today, no question,” Howard coach Chuck Rice said. “We made a few mental mistakes, and when you are playing a team like that you have to be at your best every single pitch. But I was so proud of the girls.
“They laid it all on the field, they couldn’t give any more than they did today.”
Sherwood struck first in the bottom of the opening inning courtesy of an RBI triple by Stockinger that plated Julie Swarr.
But Paugh struck out the next two batters to escape further damage. And as Paugh settled down to hold Sherwood scoreless over the next three innings, that’s when Howard made its move.
The Lions scored once in the third on an RBI double by Taylor McGrann and then twice more in the fourth courtesy of RBI hits from Shannon Wiley and Alli Jakubek.
“We scouted and I know I went out of my way to (ask) people about what they saw when they hit against her. We knew she had a good screwball and a good curveball and is going to go outside to the righties,” said McGrann, who went a perfect 4-4 with three doubles. “Yesterday at practice all we worked on was taking the ball to the opposite field. We were definitely prepared.”
But even with everything that was going well for Howard, it only took a few consecutive hits for Sherwood to steal back the momentum.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, still trailing 3-1, the Warriors loaded the bases with no outs courtesy of three consecutive singles.
“When we came in during that middle of the fifth inning, we knew we had to do something and pick it up,” Bidwick said. “We got loud, got pumped and once we got those runners on we knew that was our inning. We were making good contact with the ball all game, so we felt it was just a matter of time before something good was going to happen.”
That something good for Sherwood started with a sacrifice fly from Addie Armbruster to cut the deficit to one. Then Stockinger delivered an RBI hit to tie things up.
That brought Bidwick to the plate with runners on second and third and the chance to put her team back in front.
“All the pressure was off,” Bidwick said. “Having everybody pumped up, that pumps me up and that gave me the drive to get those runs in too.”
Bidwick laced a single to right that plated both runners and created a 5-3 lead.
After Howard got out of that inning without further damage, Sherwood ended up adding some insurance tallies in the sixth courtesy of RBI hits from Amanda Berkley and Swarr.
Dejter did the rest, keeping Howard off the board in each of the final three innings to preserve the win. Even as the Lions put runners in scoring position and threatened to close the gap, the senior pitcher always had an answer.
“A lot of it is the relationship her and Rae (Harrison), her catcher, have and that bond they have built the last four years,” Barber-Strunk said. “I actually think it's Rae that keeps her going, because when you look at Meggie and she may be getting upset on the mound, Rae is back there smiling and keeping her composed.”
The meeting between two of the state’s powerhouse programs in the region semifinals was earlier than one would typically expect. This year, the two schools just happened to be in the same section.
Rice said it was an unfortunate draw for both teams.
“This should have been the state finals. The way the counties matched up geographically, it’s just a shame we had to see each other so early,” Rice said. “You’re talking about the cream of the crop here before you even get to the region championship.”
Sherwood took the mentality that in order to be the best, you have to beat the best, no matter when that game may come.
“Whether it be now, or in the state championship, you have to win a game like this,” Barber-Strunk said.
And as Bidwick acknowledged, the Warriors’ players knew how big of a hurdle this game was.
“This was the big one and there’s that feeling of now we can breathe a little bit. It’s not that there aren’t other good teams and other big games, but we knew how strong of a team Howard had and that we were going to have to be at our best,” she said.
For Howard, there were plenty of tears shed afterward as the team’s county-championship season officially came to a close. But, as McGrann pointed out, the memories will last a lifetime.
“I will remember this team forever … the chemistry on and off the field, the intensity we played with,” McGrann said. “We absolutely played our hearts out.”
Sherwood 7, Howard 3
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Mt. Hebron 7, Centennial 2
The Vikings punched their ticket into the region finals with a comeback victory over the Eagles.
Centennial had gotten off to a fast start with two runs in the top of the first. Jordan Burk (2-3, run) got on base with a one-out single and Josefine Jensen followed with a double that scored Burk from first. Later in the inning, Emily Bowman came up and delivered a two-out double that scored Jensen to make it 2-0.
Mt. Hebron got one of those runs back in the bottom of the first as Evvie Buehlman (2 doubles, single) got a lead-off single and eventually came around to score, but Centennial kept its lead all the way through the middle of the third. Strong pitching from Bowman (8 strikeouts) and clutch defense set the early tone for the Eagles.
“We really had them on their toes,” Centennial coach Katie Grimm said. “After a 15-1 loss to them earlier in the season, it was great to see the girls come out and prove they were better than that final score.
“From the first out until the last out, my girls didn’t back down (today).”
For as well as Centennial was playing, though, Mt. Hebron wrestled away the momentum and the lead in the bottom of the third inning. A double by Sammi Cadigan (two runs scored, 2 RBI) and a single by Stephanie Bluhm did the major damage in a two-run inning that made it 3-2 in favor of the Vikings. Mt. Hebron tacked on another run in the fourth inning, two more in the fifth (on singles by Cadigan and Aaliyah Montague-Bass, along with a double by Buehlman) and then one final run in the sixth (RBI single by Maddie Bennett.
Bennett struck out 11 of the final 19 batters she faced and did not allow a Centennial run after that first inning. Bennett finished with 13 strikeouts overall and allowed just four hits.
For Centennial, solid defense was provided by outfielder Camryn Allen, Jensen (ended Viking rally in sixth with line-drive catch) and second-baseman Emily Davis (two assists on day). Catcher Sammy Kastner also recovered a wild pitch to help get an out at the plate.
With the win, Mt. Hebron advances to host Glenelg in the regional finals on Thursday at 3:30 p.m.
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Glenelg 3, Reservoir 2
Brooke Redmond delivered a walk-off single in the bottom of the seventh inning to score Grace Daigle and secure the victory for the Gladiators.
Colleen Regan was among the keys to the victory for Glenelg, delivering nine strikeouts at pitcher and delivering two big hits at the plate. She hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning that gave her team the early advantage.
The score stayed 2-0 until the top of the sixth when Reservoir scored two to tie it up. Caroline Winand delivered an RBI in the inning.
Emily Wang pitched a great game for Reservoir, striking out seven. Anna Bennett had two of the Gators’ five hits.
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