With any young team that is still learning under a relatively new leader, there’s bound to be some growing pains.
But in the midst of those growing pains, there’s bound to be a moment — with a clearly improving team, anyway — where one can say that the unit is on the verge of a breakthrough.
That was especially evident in the first contest of a doubleheader between the Shawnee State Bears’ softball program and the Cumberland (Tenn.) Phoenix softball program, when Shawnee State rallied from a 6-0 deficit after two innings of play to claim a 7-6 victory over Cumberland in a thrilling comeback victory.
And while the Bears fell by a 9-3 tally in Thursday’s nightcapper, there were certainly pleasing spots that third-year head coach Steve Whittaker saw in his program — especially considering how young his team is in 2018.
“We’ve only got one senior on the team (in Kayla Koch), so we’re playing some young kids,” Whittaker said. “A lot of these kids, however, have been playing softball over their entire lives, so we expect them to step right up and go at it, because no one’s going to wait on you to grow up. The entire Mid-South Conference has a group of teams that are ready to feast on mistakes, that’s for sure.”
After watching Cumberland (Tenn.) jump out to a 5-0 advantage after an inning of play behind two walks, two errors, and a two-RBI base knock by Tawnee Hegre back up the middle of the diamond, the Phoenix looked like it would establish full control as Kayley Caplinger’s solo home run over the center field fence boosted the Cumberland lead to a 6-0 margin after two full innings of work.
But after only getting a pair of one-out singles from Kaitlyn Gleich and Tatum Wise, respectively, Shawnee State worked its way back into the affair as the Bears began to string opportunities together.
In the bottom of the third inning, the Bears found instant life. After a leadoff double by Michal Cunningham to right center field, Gleich followed up her first inning single with a towering shot over the center field fence to immediately bring Shawnee State within a 6-2 gap.
Then, after a scoreless fourth inning of play, the duo, once again, provided the Bears with instant offense at the top of the order.
Cunningham, who batted as the leadoff hitter throughout the four-game set with regular leadoff hitter Ashtyn Saunders still working her way back from an injury sustained while in Cocoa Beach, Fla. on the team’s Spring Break trip, notched her second consecutive double to right center field, and moved to third on a comebacker by Gleich that glanced off of Caplinger. The latter then stole a base two pitches later, which allowed Cunningham and Gleich to score off of consecutive sacrifice flies from Marisa Brown and Kayla Koch that closed the Cumberland lead to 6-4.
However, the frame wasn’t finished yet.
With two out in the bottom of the fifth, Stacy Trenholm poked a ball through the middle of the diamond, then stole a base to put a runner in scoring position for the Bears. Wise then wasted no time delivering on some two-out magic for Shawnee State by knocking a ball through the middle of the infield to score Trenholm and close the lead to 6-5 in the process after five innings of work.
And throughout the run, the two Scioto County contributors at the top of the order were a big part of the comeback.
Cunningham, a Wheelersburg native in her first season with the Bears after transferring from Louisiana State, and Koch, a Bowling Green transfer, were strong throughout the opening affair as Cunningham went 2-for-3 with a walk, two doubles, and three runs scored while Koch went 1-for-3 with a sacrifice fly and an RBI in the first contest. The latter also went 2-for-3 with a home run and two runs scored in the second and final affair of the day.
“It really speaks for itself,” Whittaker said. “Anytime you get kids like (Michal and Kayla) to come and be a part of your program just allows us to raise the bar of what we’re all trying to do here. They’re just great ballplayers. Everybody watches them, takes qualities that they are setting through their own examples, and applies them to their own games. That’s what’s so great about it.”
The comeback, however, wasn’t finished yet.
With fellow Scioto County native — McKenzie Whittaker, Steve’s daughter — only allowing two hits over her remaining four innings of work, the table was set for a big SSU rally, which officially occurred when Brown, who came to the plate two batters after a Cunningham walk, blasted a two-run homer over the center field fence to cap off an impressive comeback as the Bears took the point. Tatum then came on for Whittaker and recorded a pair of punchouts en route to grabbing an opening game victory for the Bears.
In the second contest, Koch’s leadoff homer in the second frame allowed Shawnee State to take a 1-0 lead after two complete frames as the Bears got off to another strong start again. An RBI double by Courtney Miles in the top of the fourth, which brought home Brigid Antoinelli to knot the score, singles by Brown and Koch in the bottom half of the same frame, along with three Cumberland errors, allowed Shawnee State to take a 3-1 advantage after four innings of work.
“We feel comfortable every time we put a lineup out there,” Whittaker said of his stance on SSU’s hitting. “We’ve got seven, eight, nine kids on the field that can hit, and the overall hitting aspect is an area where we’ve really improved at as a team.”
Unfortunately, errors, in addition to walks, proved to be the Bears’ undoing in the latter trio of frames. A leadoff double by Tyra Graham, along with three free passes and two errors, allowed Cumberland to take the point for good in a three-run fifth, and an RBI base knock by Caplinger that scored Graham in the sixth, along with an error, an RBI single by Imani Torregano, and a two-RBI base knock by Caplinger in the seventh, rounded after the scoring as Cumberland took a 9-3 win to force the split.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT