The tear that Sam Larkin shed as she approached second base in the seventh inning was not one of sadness, but one of absolute elation.
The sophomore catcher had just cracked a three-run home run that gave the Chesapeake softball team a 6-4 lead that it carried through to the end in another come-from-behind victory, this time against host Northern-Calvert in the Class 3A state semifinal Wednesday in Owings.
Chesapeake (15-1) will face undefeated Reservoir, a 1-0 winner over Damascus, at 11 a.m. on Friday at Bachman Sports Complex for a chance to win its eighth state title but first since 2008. The Gators are searching for their first and will be making their first state finals appearance.
After falling behind 3-0 in the first two innings, the Cougars came back to tie it in the third. The Patriots plated a run in the bottom of the sixth, leading to Larkin’s heroics.
“I had already got on twice, so I was just hoping for a base hit. Just making contact, and that was the result,” Larkin said. “I didn’t think it was going out. I realized it when I heard everyone screaming from the dugout. I was shedding a tear, I was so excited.”
Kaitlyn Young started the rally with a base hit to the opposite field and moved to second when junior Devan Wenger followed with a push bunt that caught Northern off guard, putting two Cougars on base.
Larkin got behind the count at 1-2 but smashed the next pitch from Marisa Powell to center field. The ball was estimated by Northern-Calvert coach Robert Earl Radford to go about 210 feet, just barely enough to get over the fence.
“It came down to, we got the key hit. It was kind of what we did against Bel Air yesterday,” Chesapeake coach Don Ellenberger said, referencing the 9-3 quarterfinal win. “We came from behind. We don’t always do it, but I told them, ‘Let’s put the pressure back.’ … Sam hitting that three-run homer, that’s just unbelievable in that situation. It was in her wheelhouse and she didn’t miss it.”
After taking the lead, pitcher Jerzie Nutile took over. The only senior on the Chesapeake roster set the hosts down in order in the bottom of the seventh to earn the victory. She got a groundout to third, followed by a come-backer and a final grounder to third baseman Ali Pollack.
The Patriots (13-1) got on the board first on a pair of infield errors sandwiched around a run-scoring single by Adrianna Wimmer to give them a 2-0 lead. They added another run in the second on a leadoff walk to Leanne Rupp, followed by a two-out double by Sam Flowers to stake them to a 3-0 lead after two innings.
Chesapeake benefitted from a miscue by the Patriots in the third. After the first seven Cougars struck out against Marisa Powell (seven hits allowed, one walk, 12 strikeouts), Wenger put the ball in play with a base hit to left. Watts followed with another base hit and both runners scored on an error at second base that rolled into the gap in the outfield. Larkin, who put the ball in play to lead to the error, later scored on an RBI single by Nutile to tie the game at 3.
Northern-Calvert reclaimed the lead in the sixth when Reagan Powell stroked a one-out double and Jada Brooks delivered a bloop single to right. Minutes later, Larkin got just enough of one to send the Chesapeake into the final.
“You can ask anyone in the dugout. I was in tears. People don’t understand. When they say it means so much, it really does,” said Nutile, who is one of six Cougars from the 2019 squad to return to the state championship game. “For her to hit that ball, as just a sophomore, I was bawling my eyes out. I was jumping up and down. I was so happy and excited for her. No words can explain how happy I was. I was ecstatic.”
The ecstasy for Patriots coach Robert Earl Radford, who has led the program to 12 state championships, was short-lived. He knew that the contest with the Cougars was a marquee matchup and gave all the credit to Ellenberger and his team.
“I told Don before the game, in our minds with no disrespect to the other two teams, that this was the state championship game,” Radford said. “He has an excellent team. I thought we were pretty good, too. We’re blessed to have the talented players that we have. The girls were great. They have nothing to be ashamed of or hang their heads. They played a good game but just played a better team today.”