Rec Sports Spotlight: Panthers prevail in Westminster Jaycees softball final

The guests were all there at the party on June 16 eager to celebrate McKayla Johnson’s graduation from Mount St. Mary’s University.

But McKayla Johnson wasn't.


You see, she had a prior engagement at the Westminster Jaycees Field that Saturday. Her Panthers were playing the Crush for their Westminster Jaycees Girls Slow-Pitch Softball League championship.

She had scheduled her party for 3 p.m., figuring the game would be over by then. But it was far from over at 3, and she couldn't leave. At that point, she was in extra innings of a cliffhanger with the Jaycees Ponytail Division title hanging on every pitch.

However player Maddi Green cleared her coach's social schedule very decisively. The youngster hit a home run in the 11th inning to win the game and championship for the Panthers 10-9.

Johnson was late for her party, but who cared? Right?

Considering her team’s chances at the beginning of the season, the coach probably could have scheduled that graduation party for 10 a.m. in the morning. No way her team would be around to play for any championship because there was no way it figured to come close.

Nine girls were back from a Panthers outfit that had won one game the year before, and its four new players had little experience. While they were playing in a 5th-7th grade division, the Panthers were all sixth graders or younger. They were one of the youngest teams in the league.

Finally, Johnson was their first-year coach.

Good luck.

However after the season started, the Panthers began playing much better than they had the year before even though they weren't yet world-beaters. Johnson and her assistant coaches Mike Blaney and John Martin worked hard with the girls, and they learned the fundamentals well enough to become a pretty tough hombre — against most of their opponents, anyway.

They were competitive with three of the league’s four teams. However the first place Crush beat them in every regular season game.

When the season ended, the Panthers were 12-13-1, good enough for second place in the five-team Ponytail loop.

When the playoffs arrived, their coach felt she had a chance to win if her girls could somehow beat the Crush.

The Panthers opened against the Sharks on June 14. They opened up the Sharks with six-run innings in the third and fourth and coasted to a 13-6 victory.

Lainani Blaney had a huge game for the winners. She hit a grand slam homer in the third inning. The youngster wound up going 4-for-4 with two doubles, the round-tripper and six RBIs.


Going 3-for-4 were Taylor Moss, Rachel Ross and Journey Gailey. Kaitlynn Mettille and leadoff hitter Madeleine Zaepfel were 2-for-4, and Zaepfel scored two runs.

Two days later they faced the Crush and beat them for the first time this year, 8-4.

Alexa Noonan’s fourth-inning sacrifice fly broke a 2-2 tie, and the Panthers were never headed. Paige Gordon and Green were each 3-for-3.

Johnson recalled that the girls were crazy with joy after beating the team that had won every game from them until then.

“They were happier than I’d ever seen them,” Johnson said. “I think they were happier then than in the game they beat them for the championship. They all ran out of the field hugging each other, and I had to get them off the so they could play the next game,” the coach said with a laugh.

Later that day, they had a chance to eliminate the Crush and clinch the championship. However their celebration would be delayed as the Crush temporarily re-asserted their dominance over Johnson’s squad.

The game was close for awhile. The Crush led only 4-3 after two innings. However it scored three runs in the third inning and six in the fourth to pull ahead. They went on to drub the Panthers 17-10.

They threatened in the final inning when singles by Emma Knight and Zaepfel and a walk loaded the bases. But the Panthers couldn't get the big hits.

Ross was 3-for-3 with three runs scored for the Panthers, and teammate Megan Wellnitz went 3-for-4.

Each team now had one loss in the double-elimination affair, and there had to be an “if” game.

At that point, with a third game looming on that warm Saturday afternoon, Johnson's girls were pretty tuckered out. However she told her kids there was a way to finish things up quickly.

“I said if we could win by a lot, we could go home. They got really excited,” the coach said.

The Crush had other ideas though. They scored four runs in the top of the very first inning. Both teams banged away over the next few frames, and the game was tied 5-5 after three.Things then calmed down for awhile.

Crush scored two runs in the top of the sixth inning to go up 7-5, but the Panthers erupted for four tallies in the home half. Leading 9-7, they only had to hold for one more at-bat to win the title.

The Crush though, squelched that hope by scoring twice in the top of the seventh inning to tie things 9-9. The game was now in extra innings, and Johnson started getting calls from her waiting party guests.

“They were asking where I was, and then they started asking how the game was going,” Johnson said. “They were rooting for my team, too. I think they would have all come over if it hadn’t been for the party.”

Her team did have a chance to win in the ninth, but it had a runner thrown out at third on a close play. Her teammates were screaming about the umpire's decision, and Johnson had to calm them down.

But all ended happily for them in the bottom of the 11th.

“Maddie hit one over the left fielder’s head, and she didn’t stop,” Johnson said. “She didn’t even look at the coach at third. She was going all the way.”

Her players’ reactions were instantaneous.

“I had to stop them from running out on the field,” Johnson said. “They were all screaming and hugging Maddie and each other. I’ve never seen players put more emotion into a game. These are the games you coach for”

Ross hit a three-run home run and was 4-for-4, and Hayley Martin was 2-for-2. Grace Cordon, Blaney and Gordon were each 3-for-3.

Will Johnson coach the Panthers again next season?

“Oh yeah,” she replied. “I told them we only lose one girl next year, and we’ll have a very good team.”