Mavericks' walk-off win in eighth inning gives them first county crown with victory over Liberty
When the ball left her bat and headed for right field, Taylor Brown put her head down and sprinted toward first base. Manchester Valley was trailing Liberty by three runs in the sixth inning of the softball county championship game Monday, and with runners on first and second and two outs Brown was hoping to move the runners up a base and maybe cut into the lead.
But as the Mavericks left fielder reached first base, she heard the screams from her coaches and teammates: "Keep going!" She had no idea where the ball was — it had hopped past Liberty's Taylor Fowlkes — but around the bases she went, sprinting toward home to tie the game without a throw.
In the inaugural county title game, Brown's big hit set the stage for Manchester Valley's 5-4 walk-off victory in eight innings over four-time defending county champion Liberty — the Mavericks' first county title.
Manchester Valley center fielder Storm Smith scored the winning run with no outs in the eighth after an infield single by catcher Kayla Geho and a throwing error.
"It's actually one of the better games you can play," Brown said. "It really got my adrenaline pumping, the back-and-forth game, only-one-run-up kind of game. It really gets you into the game and focused. It can go either way, and that's what the whole fun part is. You just don't know and you're ready to go."
Carroll County Athletic League rules pit the winner of the Hersh Division (Liberty) against the top team in the Cowan Division (Manchester Valley) in a championship game to decide the county title.
Junior pitcher Rachel Heron helped navigate Man Valley, the two-time reigning Class 1A state champions, through the matchup. Liberty posted four runs and collected seven hits off Heron, but she got timely outs when she needed them, especially in the top of the eighth when Liberty (14-3) had the go-ahead run on third base.
"This is my first time pitching and playing in a county championship or state championship, so it's pretty exciting," Heron said.
It was the type of pitching that MV coach Mike Hernandez has come to expect from Heron. Heron's 5-4 record and 26 strikeouts entering Monday's contest weren't eye-popping, Hernandez said, but he had relied on Heron in some of the Mavericks' toughest games, including their previous two losses to the Lions, which came by scores of 2-1 and 5-2.
Though she had only one 1-2-3 inning, Heron relied on her defense — she got a 4-6-3 double play with runners on first and third in the second inning — to help her get through a lineup that posted Liberty senior infielder Lexi Jones and senior center fielder Kasey Bost, who entered the afternoon batting .538 and .449.
"Rachel has been great," Hernandez said. "She gets the out at the big time. Yeah, lots of runners all the time. … She's a very good pitcher who works her way out of jams."
Manchester Valley (13-5) struck first against Liberty junior pitcher Lexi Trail, who led the county with a 0.65 ERA, when infielder Jessie Swistock came all the way around to score after she laced a ball into left field that skittered all the way to the wall.
Both pitchers held until the sixth inning when the game began its wild see-sawing between the rivals. Liberty scored four runs in the top of the frame — junior infielder Ashlyn Weisgerber led off with a double and scored on a fielder's choice off the bat of Jones to kick off a sequence that also featured a single by sophomore Kaya Holmes and a Mavericks error — to take a 4-1 lead and put the pressure on Manchester Valley.
The Mavericks answered, though. Geho and shortstop Lauren Vogel led off the inning with back-to-back singles before infielder Jordan Diggs reached on a fielder's choice to put runners on first and second with one out. Then it was Brown's turn to play hero.
"You never give up," Hernandez said. "Destiny kind of happens on both sides. Every time we play this team over here, it's one of these type of games."