Sherwood's Jaime Schmier and Howard's Lydia Maruschak talk about the 6-0 win by Sherwood in the 4A North region semifinals on Wednesday, May 18. (Brent Kennedy / BSMG)
For Howard and Sherwood softball, the storyline that played out Wednesday afternoon was a familiar one.
For the third straight year, the two programs — each atop its respective county this spring — squared off in the 4A North region semifinals. And for the third straight year, Sherwood was the one walking off the field victorious.
The Warriors, chasing their fifth straight state title this season, methodically built a comfortable lead behind some timely hitting and then let its defense do the rest on the way to a 6-0 win that marks the 100th straight for the program.
Afterward, as the team celebrated on the field with cake and lots of pictures, Sherwood coach Ashley Barber-Strunk acknowledged everything that has gone into getting the team to this point.
"Honestly, all of this started even before the streak started — the parents, the year-round programs these kids play in, the teams here before them that were so strong — everything has kind of added up to this," Barber-Strunk said, who has been coaching the team the last three seasons. "Now, it's at the point where these girls don't want to be the ones to stop the streak and they are doing whatever it takes to keep it going. They keep working harder and keep getting better and it has allowed us to keep winning games, like we did today against a good team."
For Howard, while the season-ending loss certainly stung, no one was hanging their heads afterward.
"(Sherwood is) a well-schooled team and I give a lot of credit to them. They can hit, they made some great plays in the field and really limited our opportunities," Howard coach Chuck Rice said. "I thought we hit the ball hard ourselves, made some good adjustments, but just couldn't string anything together."
Sherwood (18-0) ace pitcher Jaime Schmier, who allowed just three hits on the afternoon, came out and set the tone early by setting Howard down in order in the top of the first.
Then, in the bottom half of the inning, Sherwood's first two batters Amanda Berkley (2-4) and Marisa Mancini (2-4, 2 runs) singled to get things going. An RBI ground out by Kara Carney (2-4, 2 RBI) and then a sacrifice fly by Kelly Bouma quickly made it 2-0.
"This game is a game of inches, so the little things can make you win. So like a ground ball to second base that scores a runner is just as good as another base hit," Schmier said. "Even though it's an out, it's still scoring the runner and doing the job that we need done."
Sherwood then added another run in the third — on a RBI hit from McKenzie Bina — and two more in the fourth — on RBI hits from Berkley and Carney — to increase its advantage to 5-0.
While the Warriors offense was padding their cushion, Schmier simply kept rolling along. She allowed just one hit through the first six innings — a single by Ally Wieman — and finished the day with six strikeouts.
"Definitely going into this, we knew she was a good pitcher and knew she was quick. She was throwing really good curve balls and that was really what was getting us," said Howard's Lydia Maruschak.
Howard did make solid contact on several occasions, but the left side of Sherwood's infield was on the top of its game nearly every time. Hanna Nalls at shortstop and Bina at third each made several highlight-reel plays to rob potential hits.
"We practice for everything … we aren't practicing for a no hitter. We practice as if every batter coming up is going to hit the ball, so we are ready for that," Barber-Strunk said. "Jaime pitched well and her defense made plays behind her today."
Sherwood got its sixth run in the sixth inning on a RBI hit rom Faith Hanrahan, then Schmier closed things out by striking out the side in the seventh around a couple hits by Howard's Emma Braswell and Katie Unkle.
In the loss, Howard pitcher Ally Wieman had a strong outing with six strikeouts and just two walks. The six runs were the fewest that Sherwood has scored this season.
Looking forward, Schmier said the team is happy but not satisfied.
"We can celebrate it tonight, and we are probably going to celebrate it a little bit tomorrow, but come practice we have to focus because our next game is Friday," she said.
In what turned out to be an offensive showdown between two of the county's hottest teams, the Vikings scored nine times in the first inning and added some insurance later on to pull out the victory in the region semis.
Mt. Hebron advances to face Northeast on Friday on the road at 4 p.m. for the region title.
Long Reach had kicked things off with three runs in the top of the first, as Isa Carunungan and Kasey White each delivered RBI hits after two walks got things going.
But the Vikings answered right back in the bottom half of that first inning by sending 13 batters to the plate and scored nine times. Evvie Buehlman and Rylee Kinsella each double twice in the inning, while Rachel Cadigan also added two hits, as part of the offensive explosion. Stephanie Bluhm, Kieran Davis, Meghan Holquist and Elize Munns all had big hits in the first as well.
Neither team scored again until the fifth inning, which is when Long Reach scored five times to actually make it a one-run game. That inning was highlighted by a three-run home run by Hailey Ramberg and a RBI single by Kamryn Walker.
However, Mt. Hebron stayed composed and scored twice in the bottom half of the fifth to get the momentum back. Then the team separated itself for good with three more runs in the sixth. Rachel Veslany, Davis, Bluhm and Munns all had hits in the sixth inning.
Long Reach did add one more run in the top of the seventh before Mt. Hebron's pitcher Buehlman (8 strikeouts) got the final out of the game to secure the victory.