This is not the way the Hiland Lady Hawks thought they would be bowing out of the Div. IV softball tournament.
Having won just three games this season, the Lady Hawks had the honor of hosting a game as the higher seed, taking on a winless team from West Muskingum.
However, that proved to be a tougher task than it might appear, facing a West M team that had lost a large number of very close games this season.
By tacking on runs throughout the game and playing solid defensively, West Muskingum finally got their win in a 6-2 victory that came at the expense of Hiland.
“When you deal with high school kids, sometimes you get the good, and sometimes you get the bad, and tonight we got the bad,” Hiland head coach Jason Hazen said on his team’s less-than-inspiring effort. “I can’t motivate any more than a home tournament game. We weren’t highly motivated, and it was hard to get it going.”
“I thought it was two evenly matched teams,” West Muskingum coach Brian Drake said. “Nobody was expecting us to win, but playing in the MVNL, we face a lot of top teams, so our record doesn’t look like we have done anything. But we have lost a ton of very close games, and when you hold Sheridan, Tri-Valley and Philo down, and you’re one out away from winning each time, it’s deceiving.”
With the Lady Hawks giving up six runs, a solid-hitting Hiland team seemed more than capable of picking apart West M freshman pitcher Chloe Armstrong. However, Armstrong was able to limit base runners, and when Hiland really needed a big hit, she found ways to record outs and keep the Lady Hawks from crossing home plate.
“In tournament softball, runs are at a premium, no matter who you are playing,” Hazen said. “We talked about the importance of getting the bunt down and moving runners, but I saw pretty early on that we weren’t going to get that accomplished, so we were going to have to do it the old-fashioned way in hitting the ball. We had some good hits, but we just couldn’t string them together.”
Two times the Lady Hawks (3-19) had the bases loaded with one out and good hitters coming up, but they failed to produce.
The Tornadoes got on top in the first, plating a run when speedy lead-off hitter Hayley Barker bunted her way on and zipped around the bases to score on a fielder’s choice.
Hiland came right back in and threatened with two-out singles from Hannah Gerber and Bryn McVicker, but Sarah Custer flew out deep to center to end the inning and set a tone that would haunt Hiland the rest of the way.
Hiland hurler Nikki Keim cruised through the second, as did Armstrong, and West M padded its lead when, with a runner on first and two outs, Jade Mercer singled. Olivia Thomas then drove in a pair with a double to right center to make it 3-0.
Hiland went down quietly in the bottom of the third, as did West Muskingum in the top of the fourth, and the Lady Hawks finally struck in the bottom of the inning. Gerber singled to lead off the inning, and after McVicker forced her at second, Custer drew a walk. She would eventually score on Natalie Weaver’s sharp ground out to short to make it 3-1. After Sheila Troyer walked, Hiland again came up empty with two on when Chey Schrock grounded out to short.
Then came the big blow in the game when with one on Thomas unloaded, hitting a deep shot over the wall for a 5-1 West M lead.
Then came the fifth inning, an inning that Drake said has bitten his team all season. It looked like it might again.
“We have this thing called the fifth-inning bugaboo,” Drake said. “Every fifth inning one play happens, or something happens to kill us. It could have happened tonight, but we got through it.”
Annie Troyer singled to start the inning, and Keim followed suit. Britt Troyer sacrificed both runners up a base, and Gerber drew a walk to load the bases. With the powerful McVicker up, Armstrong induced a fielder’s choice out at home plate, and Custer flew out to left to end yet another empty inning of “what could have been” for Hiland.
West Muskingum would score once more in the seventh on a Mecer base hit, making it 6-1 and bringing the Lady Hawks to the peak of extinction for the tournament.
It started hopefully for Hiland when Keim singled with one out, stole second and took third when Troyer reached on an error. Gerber then hit a soft liner to short for the second out, but McVicker momentarily kept things alive by singling Keim home on a soft liner over the first baseman’s head. However, McVicker was caught off guard when the right fielder threw behind her at first and the tag just beat her diving attempt, thus ending the game and the tournament run for Hiland. Keim, Gerber and McVicker all banged out a pair of hits in the loss.
It was a disappointing finish in a game that the Lady Hawks felt was ripe to win.
“As much hard work as these kids have put in, starting in October, I feel for them, but I don’t know what more we can do to motivate them in a game like this,” Hazen said.
Drake knew what to say.
“Our reward is that we get Sandy Valley,” he said with a laugh. “We are young. We have a freshman pitcher, and we have battled, and we lived to fight another day.”
Even though they had to face the district’s top seed, he and his players were more than glad to revel in their first win of the season.