When two teams enter the final week of the conference schedule undefeated, one can expect the ensuing affair or affairs to be splendid.
However, even for what it was all hyped up for, Wednesday evening’s SOC II conference matchup between the Minford Lady Falcons and the Wheelersburg Lady Pirates exceeded all of the hype.
And fittingly, the contest ended with a play at the plate.
With runners on second and third, two gone, and Minford down by a 2-1 tally in the bottom of the seventh, Zoe Doll — who is speedy on the basepaths — tried to steal home on the throw back from the pitcher to catcher exchange between Kasey Bergan and Faith Howard.
And for a moment, it looked like Doll would succeed at that goal.
But Howard, like she did most of the evening, shut the threat down with her heady play, as her 1-2 forceout of Doll’s attempted steal allowed Wheelersburg to remain undefeated and clinch a share of the SOC II title with a 2-1 victory over Minford in a battle of the titans on Bond Road in Minford.
For Teresa Ruby, it was another test passed for the defending state champions and the state’s No. 1-ranked team in the coaches poll across the Division III ranks.
“It was an intense game,” Ruby said. “But it’s what we expected when we came out here. Preston (Messer) does a great job, and Minford is always well-coached. However, we also squandered way too many scoring opportunities in the first few innings, and I think we created our own drama.”
Even in the loss, it was hard for Preston Messer to find any reason to be disappointed considering how the game was played.
“Anytime two teams meet, anything can happen,” Messer said. “Two great teams played tonight. Teresa Ruby does a heck of a job with Wheelersburg. It’s just how it goes. Unfortunately, somebody’s got to lose.”
As with the game’s ending, the beginning of the contest started off with a bang, as well — albeit in a different form.
Even though starting pitcher Madison Sifford put two well-located balls in the corner of the strike zone to put Kalle Coleman down 0-2 in the count, Coleman responded on the third pitch of the game’s first at-bat by launching Sifford’s third pitch all the way to Bond Road in a no-doubter over the left field fence to immediately put Wheelersburg up by a 1-0 count in the opening frame.
“Kalle’s a talented young lady,” Ruby said. “You just always have a good feeling when she leads the game off with a bomb like that. She’s a gamer, and what she did today is just what we’ve come to expect from her.”
Wheelersburg, however, didn’t stop there. Taylor Fannin immediately followed Coleman’s blast with a double to left, and two Minford errors allowed Bre Klaiber to join Fannin in scoring position.
But with the game at a 1-0 tally and the Lady Pirates threatening to break the game open with just one out in the frame, Messer called time to talk things over with his Lady Falcons.
“It’s kind of rough when the leadoff batter hits a home run,” Messer said. “I just told them to relax. We’ve been telling them all week long, ‘Play your game. Stay focused on what we do. Don’t overthink things.’ I’m really proud of our defense. There aren’t many teams that can say that they kept a dozen Wheelersburg runners on base.”
After Messer talked it over with his team, Minford settled down.
With Klaiber on second and Fannin on third, Kierston Hale — who is only of freshman eligibility — showed an arm and IQ beyond her years as the catcher caught Fannin off guard with her bullet to third base that gunned down the No. 2 hole hitter. Sifford then followed by striking out Faith Howard to cap off a huge turn of events as Minford immediately stopped the bleeding in a 1-0 first-inning that could’ve been a whole lot worse.
In the second inning, Wheelersburg threatened again as Sarah Claxon’s leadoff double to left field, Brittany Swim’s single to center field, a RBI bunt single by Taylor McQuay — who advanced to second base with nobody covering the bag — and a free pass drawn by Christen Risner had the ‘Burg up 2-0 with the bases full and nobody out in the top half of the second frame.
Minford, however, didn’t need Messer’s guidance this time to hold Wheelersburg at bay. Two brilliant throws home by Mary Pica and Hannah Tolle, along with a Kasey Bergan flyout, allowed the Lady Falcons to get out of the jam with minimal damage done.
Then, in the third inning, Minford proceeded to repeat the feat while not allowing a run, as a Klaiber walk, a single by Howard that moved Klaiber over to third base, and a defensive indifference play allowed Mia Darnell to advance to second base as Wheelersburg put two runners in scoring position again with nobody out.
But once again, Sifford got out of trouble by punching out Claxon and McQuay and forcing Swim to ground out to the right side as the Lady Falcons got out of the jam completely unharmed in the third inning of play.
“It’s usually a recipe for a good loss,” Ruby said of leaving runners on base. “It’s been a source of frustration for us for a few games. We get a bunch of hits, but just don’t get them when we need to drive runners in.”
However, Howard was stellar on the other side of the coin. The Northern Kentucky signee, who retired the first 10 Minford batters of the contest successfully, allowed just six hits and struck out nine Lady Falcons on the evening in her complete game effort. Brittani Wolfenbarker cracked the code by launching a one-out triple to right field in the fourth frame, and Zoe Doll and Tolle followed with singles in the fifth inning, but Howard followed by inducing two infield pop-ups to
Brittani Wolfenbarker eventually cracked Howard’s code first by launching a one-out triple to right field in the fourth frame, and Zoe Doll and Tolle followed with singles in the fifth inning, but Howard followed by inducing two infield pop-ups in the fourth and three strikeouts in the fifth to throw five scoreless innings on the evening.
“Faith’s having a phenomenal season,” Ruby said. “She battled. It was hot today, and Minford’s got a really good group of young hitters. I felt like there were at least several situations where they had opportunities to score, and Faith was able to work out of trouble with some strikeouts and some very good, quality pitches.”
Minford, however, stayed right in the game behind the efforts of Sifford and Ariel Kingery, who took over in the circle for the freshman after three and one-third innings of play. In addition to the dozen Wheelersburg batters held on base, the pair combined for six strikeouts, which were critical throughout the contest.
“Our pitchers (Madison Sifford and Ariel Kingery) did a heck of a job tonight,” Messer said. “Wheelersburg had the bases loaded three times, and on each occasion, they both found a way to get out of it with minimal or no damage. Art Doll (pitching coach) called a heck of a game tonight. Like I told our players out on the field, ‘Two good teams met.’ It’s the first time since I’ve been here (at Minford) that (the ballpark) was standing room only. I just want to thank the fans for coming out. They definitely got their $5 worth, I guarantee you that.”
After holding Coleman on second behind the Morehead State signee’s double in the sixth inning of play, Minford came back in the bottom of the sixth inning with a spark of its own as Emily Shoemaker launched a double of her own to left field and advanced to third on a well-placed sacrifice bunt by Wolfenbarker.
However, it seemed that Shoemaker was dead to rights as the left fielder was caught leaning off of third base following a missed bunt attempt. But in a wild twist, the rundown throw from Bergan was dropped, which allowed Shoemaker to slide in safe at home plate as Minford cut the ‘Burg lead in half, 2-1, entering the seventh inning of play.
“We kept telling them in the dugout, ‘Keep battling, keep battling.’” Messer said. “Something’s bound to happen. And it did. (The end result) is just how the game goes sometimes.”
In the seventh inning, Wheelersburg responded again as Klaiber and Howard recorded back-to-back hits with one out in the frame. However, a five-unassisted forceout and a flyout to third allowed Kingery to work out of danger as Minford entered the game’s final half-inning down one run. There, Minford established extreme momentum against the Lady Pirates, as a base knock by Doll and a beautifully placed bunt single by Sifford allowed the Lady Falcons to put runners on first and second with nobody out.
Then, with one out and Sifford and Doll still at first and second, a sacrifice bunt by Hale allowed both runners to advance to second and third, which allowed Melanie Fuhrmann to come to the plate.
Doll, however, decided that the time was right to try to surprise the Wheelersburg defense. With two gone, Doll took off from third on the second pitch of Fuhrmann’s at-bat and tried to steal home.
However, the heady IQ play of Howard (in throwing the ball cleanly) and Bergan (in blocking the plate effectively and making the tag) shut that attempt down, as Doll, despite her efforts to avoid the tag via the slide, was tagged out by Bergan to end the game on the 1-2 caught stealing as Wheelersburg clinched at least a share of the SOC II title and remained undefeated with the victory.
“Playing in tight situations like we have (against Rock Hill and Minford) is good for our team because our team knows that it can persevere and do it,” Ruby said. “It’s a new identity. We lost some quality seniors last year, so we’ve got to develop our own identity, and I believe that we’re learning to do that.”
Even with Wheelersburg’s victory, neither the Lady Pirates — nor the Lady Falcons — are out of the woods just yet. Wheelersburg will have to beat Minford on Friday to clinch the SOC II title outright that day, while the Lady Falcons will have to not only beat ‘Burg, but take down Valley in another road contest if Minford hopes to share the title with Wheelersburg.
So it’s safe to say that Friday’s affair will, if nothing else, be as highly anticipated — if not moreso — than Wednesday’s matchup.
“This SOC II scheduling makes it interesting, having to play so close together,” Ruby said. “Again, however, I expect it to be nothing less than what it was tonight.”
“Hat’s off to Wheelersburg,” Messer said. “Two great teams played, but unfortunately, someone has to lose. We’ve still got one more shot at them, so we’ll see what happens on Friday.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7