Brooke Heffler started the spring playing junior varsity softball for Liberty, something she chose after varsity coach Chris Szocik gave her the options before the season began.
Make varsity and see limited action, or open up with JV and get more chances to play.
Heffler didn't flinch. She proved herself a solid player and showcased her speed, soon finding herself on varsity and becoming what Szocik calls one of the Lions' "rising stars."
Heffler had a chance to shine Monday in a tight ballgame against Manchester Valley, and the sophomore came through for the home team. Her walk-off single in the eighth lifted Liberty past the Mavericks 2-1 and completed another comeback for the Lions in this county rivalry.
"I wanted to play instead of being on varsity just to be on varsity," Heffler said. "Not just for the bragging rights."
Liberty's 10th straight win came in come-from-behind fashion. The Lions (11-1, 9-0 county) tied things up 1-1 in the seventh on a two-out RBI single from Lexi Trail and forced extra innings.
After Trail retired Man Valley (8-4, 6-3) in order in the eighth, Liberty loaded the bases with one out for Heffler. She singled to start the seventh inning but got caught on the basepaths during a Manchester Valley double play, so Heffler said she wanted to make up for herself if given the chance.
"I was kind of nervous, like, 'Can I get another hit?'" she said. "But then it was like, 'I know I can do this. I can hit it.' And then it just came off the bat."
Heffler lined a Rachel Heron pitch into left field and Lexi Jones, who started the inning on second base under international tiebreaker rules, trotted home for the winning run.
Heron and the Mavericks had Liberty down to its final out in the seventh before Kasey Bost doubled and Trail knocked her in with a single to right-center. Heron allowed one hit through the first five innings and Liberty stranded seven runners on base before the seventh.
Man Valley's 1-0 lead came in the fifth, when Jessie Swistock's two-out double to left-center scored Sarah Ruiz. The Mavs tried to go up 2-0 with two outs in the seventh when Emily Christman sprinted home from third on a passed ball.
Meghan Jacobs, Liberty's catcher, raced to the backstop for the ball and flicked it to Trail at the plate, who tagged Christman for the third out.
MV coach Mike Hernandez made it known he felt Christman got under the tag, but the call stood. One inning later, the Mavericks had their five-game win streak halted. But Hernandez tried to point to some positives.
"Rachel holding a team like that, with all that offensive power, to only two runs ... that showed the girls were really intense," Hernandez said. "If things go right the rest of the way, maybe we can see these girls again in the county championship game. That's the next goal."
Liberty scored three runs in the seventh to clip Man Valley 5-2 on April 5, so Szocik said he's getting used to playing nailbiters with the two-time reigning Class 1A state champions. The rivals split their regular-season games in 2015 — Liberty won 1-0 in Manchester and Man Valley took the game in Eldersburg 3-2.
But the Lions own wins in both matchups this spring, and Szocik said being focused in games like Monday's should go a long way when it comes time for regional playoffs. Or a potential county title game matchup.
"We do talk about that — all in, every pitch, all game," Liberty's coach said. "They're pretty much in the zone."
That includes players such as Heffler, still learning the nuances of varsity play but relied upon as a contributor on a team full of them.
"I asked her in the beginning, 'You might not play that much at varsity, so what would you rather do? Play every day, or come up?'" Szocik said. "[She said], 'I'd rather play every day.' But then I thought, we could use that speed. We need it in the outfield. She has got really good wheels, so I decided to bring her up.
"And she stuck, and she's getting her playing time."