RIO GRANDE — As it turned out, no Wednesday rainfall, no Wednesday darkness, no back-to-back bus rides to the University of Rio Grande, and no bad bounces in front of freshman Lauren Kaltenbach was going to deter — or even deny — the South Webster Jeeps.
That’s because sixth-seeded South Webster— and some observers agree the under-seeded Jeeps — with an early fast start, an immediate answer to the third-seeded Belpre Golden Eagles (16-8) and finally a massive late insurance run, captured a 6-4 Division IV Southeast District semifinal softball victory on Thursday.
Yes that’s correct, as it took two days —and two go-ahead fifth-inning runs —for the Jeeps to regain the lead, as South Webster withstood some Golden Eagle offensive attacks in order to preserve the win.
The district semifinal, scheduled for Wednesday, began exactly an hour late —and a hard Rio Grande rain, combined with the darkness threat, suspended the contest until Thursday.
This time, the sun was out, the heat was on —and the Jeeps jumped in front 5-4 with those two go-ahead points, as South Webster senior pitcher Rylee McGraw only allowed three baserunners and two hits over her final three innings.
But, even with the Jeeps leading 6-4 in the seventh, there was still South Webster trepidation —until the final Golden Eagle out was indeed recorded.
Belpre’s nine-hole hitter, Hannah Williams, reached on an infield hit —when a routine ground ball took an atrociously-terrible hop directly smack dab in front of Kaltenbach at second base.
McGraw then recorded her 11th and final strikeout, but then Kaitlen Bush singled to center for Golden Eagles on first and second.
With the two tying runs on base, and three-hole hitter and freshman Makayla Carmichael at the plate, McGraw got her to pop out to first —followed by cleanup Maggie Johnson stepping in, and hitting another ground ball right back to Kaltenbach.
This time, there was no bad hop —but only good vibes for the Jeeps.
She fielded it cleanly, fired a throw to first base —and clinched South Webster’s two-day triumph, which raised its record to 17-9.
SWHS coach Andy Messer made it a point that his Jeeps just adapted to the weather, adjusted to the adversity, enjoyed a solid Thursday pregame warmup, and didn’t complain about two trips in two days to Rio Grande.
“You never know what to expect, and the rain was just hard to play through yesterday (Wednesday). But our girls were ready to come back today (Thursday), our pregame workout was very good. The girls were ready to hit the fastball as well as the change-up. They practiced on the off-speed stuff, and they really responded well. We count on each other,” said Messer. “One girls might miss a ball and we don’t want that to happen, but the other girls pick that girl up. We have good team chemistry. We pick each other up in the field and with the bats.”
But the five-foot 10-inch senior ace McGraw had it going on both days, striking out two batters apiece in the opening two innings on Wednesday —then revving up to retiring the side 1-2-3 in Thursday’s third and sixth.
In fact, she struck out the sixth-stanza side — while facing four Golden Eagles apiece in innings two and five.
McGraw gave up a leadoff walk in the second, and her counterpart Carmichael reached on an error in the fifth, but she stranded them to end those threats.
Belpre finished with just five hits —three of which directly led to the Golden Eagles’ four runs.
“Another strong performance from the circle out of Rylee McGraw. She threw really well, even considering the rain yesterday,” said Messer. “Four strikeouts in the first two innings, and she comes back today to allow only two runs over five (innings). We had some balls hit right to us and we made some errors and some balls took bad hops, but we got out of jams and was able to come out on top.”
Those jams included the Golden Eagles’ opening at-bat, when Madison Sprigg led off with a walk and eventually scored —and Johnson singled and Carissa Sprigg doubled her home for a 3-2 deficit.
But like Carmichael in the fifth, and Williams in the fourth, Sprigg was left standing on second — making it four total Golden Eagles left in scoring position.
In the Belpre fourth, the Golden Eagles edged ahead 4-3 —when Carissa Sprigg walked, Allie Jaraucaro drove her in with a double, and Williams’ at-bat on an error brought her in.
That lead was short-lived, though, as South Webster went ahead for good at 5-4 on its very next at-bat.
Carmichael had kept the Jeeps largely in check, facing four batters apiece in the second, third and fourth frames —with a Bri Claxon two-out infield single in the second, a McGraw one-out single in the fourth, and Ashley Spence reaching on an two-out error in the third.
Skylar Zimmerman zipped a triple to lead off the fifth against Carmichael, and actually made it 4-4 — as she scored on the same sequence with a Golden Eagle error.
With one out, Bella Claxon walked, Spence doubled, and Makayla Raynard reached on another miscue —as Claxon crossed for the go-ahead run.
“It’s making things happen,” said Messer. “When you put the ball in play, you have better chances of winning and that’s what the girls did. I applaud them for that.”
A resounding round of applause was then in order for Messer’s daughter, the catcher Ava Messer, in the seventh.
Bella Claxon clubbed a double to deep left field, then Messer muscled a single back through the box just two batters later.
Claxon easily scored, and the Jeeps had cashed in with some serious insurance.
“It was scary going into the last inning with only a one-run lead, with the heart of their lineup coming up, so it was good to get that extra run. Gave us some more breathing room,” said the coach. “Bella (Claxon) doubled to deep left to lead off, then Ava (Messer) laces that one up the middle. That was huge.”
But just as South Webster finished strong, it started that way as well.
The first four Jeeps reached base off Carmichael in the opening inning —Bri Claxon on an infield single, Zimmerman on an error in centerfield which scored Claxon, Kaltenbach on a walk, and finally a two-run double by Bella Claxon, which plated both Zimmerman and Kaltenbach.
That 3-0 advantage was key for the Jeeps, jump-starting their semifinal performance —despite having to stop 45 minutes in and then resuming again on Thursday.
Now, on Saturday, the Jeeps become the only team this week to make three treks to Rio Grande —where South Webster will play seventh-seeded Waterford for the Division IV district championship.
Waterford won Wednesday’s first semifinal against second-seeded Clay —an 11-7 decision which saw the Wildcats race out to leads of 6-0 and 9-2.
Messer said he saw “a couple of innings” of that affair, and said Waterford —which split with Belpre during the regular season as both squads are members of the Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division —will be similar to their league and Washington County sisterhood.
“What I see with Waterford was what I saw with Belpre. Both teams put the ball in play really well. I’m going to expect another good, if not better, matchup than what we just had,” he said. “Another good matchup, but we’re not going to let down. We’re going to give it our best.”
And, for the Jeeps, their best on Saturday will result in a district title —which would be the program’s first in two full decades.
First pitch is set for 2 p.m. — from the University of Rio Grande softball complex.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved