A remarkable season came to a premature end for defending Northern Region softball champion South County on Wednesday night, June 2 when the Stallions lost for the first time this spring to rising power McLean, 3-0, in a semifinals round playoff game played at Robinson Secondary School.
With the postseason loss, South County (25-1) saw its season end one win short of qualifying for the eight-team state AAA playoffs.
McLean (24-4-1), meanwhile, reached the finals for the first time in school history and also qualified for next week’s state tournament. The Highlanders, who in a quarterfinals round game on Memorial Day erased a late 3-0 deficit and defeated Westfield, were scheduled to meet Liberty District rival Madison in the region title game this Friday, May 4, at 6:30 p.m. The championship game will take place at Lake Braddock Secondary School. By reaching the region finals, both McLean and Madison automatically qualified for states.
A year ago, South County had erased a seventh inning deficit to McLean before ultimately defeating the Highlanders in a dramatic, extra innings region semifinals affair. That victory propelled the Stallions to winning the region and going as far as the state semifinals before their season finally ended with a loss to Loudoun Valley. Those 2009 Stallions finished 28-1.
Naturally, this year’s South County team had the same expectations of successfully defending its region crown and going on to states. Those aspirations, however, fell just short with the loss to McLean.
“This has always been a ‘family’ team,” said an emotional South County coach Al Thompson following Wednesday night’s season-ending loss. “Most of these girls played travel ball together when they were 8-years old. Being a family, we’ve had our ups and downs. They’ve handled disappointment real well. Tonight was only one game.”
Thompson said the team has experienced tough times throughout the season, as they struggled to generate consistent hitting. Against McLean, the Stallions had no real answers at the plate against Highlander junior pitching ace Jamie Bell, who limited South County to an infield single to leadoff batter Julia Kastner to begin the bottom of the first inning.
Bell, a right-hander who struck out eight and walked none, was the beneficiary of several sparking defensive plays behind her, two coming on groundball pickups by first baseman Megan Sullivan on sharply hit balls. Perhaps the game’s standout fielding gem came in the bottom of the fifth inning when South County’s Chelsea Dunham, the Stallions’ senior pitcher, sent a hard grounder toward the right side of the infield which seemed destined to go threw into the outfield for a base hit. But McLean second baseman Brittany McCray, on the ball hit between the first and second base positions, made a fully extended diving stop to her left before positioning herself to make the throw to first baseman Sullivan. The throw barely beat Dunham for the out.
“We’re a tremendous fielding team,” said McLean head coach Maurice Tawil. “And my unheralded pitcher did an extremely good job.”
Bell almost seemed unhittable in the final inning when, throwing perhaps harder than she had all night, she struck out the side in order to end the game.
“I was definitely more pumped up,” said Bell, on the excitement she was feeling to finish the game.
“I think she was really feeding from the energy,” said Tawil.
Bell said she and her teammates have been motivated ever since last year’s deflating region semifinals loss to South County. All season long, the Highlanders had a primary goal of qualifying for states. Defeating South County, the team that ended their dreams last year, to qualify for states was the perfect scenario for McLean.
“This game was about [payback],” said Bell. “We’ve been looking forward to this all season.”
Tawil said his team’s season-ending loss in 2009 proved to be an igniter of sorts for the current season.
“That was a big motivator,” he said. “It’s a year later, but we still remember that day vividly. Maybe this win will erase that memory now. South County deserved it last year and we deserve it this year.”
MCLEAN JUMPED AHEAD EARLY on Wednesday with a run in the top of the first inning. Leadoff batter Lauren McColgan doubled to center field to start the game, and then scored two batters later on an RBI double hit into right center field off the bat of Jessie Straub.
Dunham, the outstanding Stallions pitching ace, settled down thereafter and held McLean scoreless over the next three innings, allowing three singles over that stretch.
Meanwhile, the South County bats were struggling to generate much on offense. Kastner, South County’s sophomore right fielder, had smashed a hard grounder to third baseman Straub to lead off the bottom of the first. Straub struggled to gain a quick handle on the ball although she did eventually get a late throw off to first base. But the throw was late and inaccurate, resulting in Kastner going all the way to third base. The hit was ruled as an infield hit and two-base error.
But, with the potential tying run on third with no outs, South County could not get Kastner home as Bell coaxed a pop-up, followed by a strikeout and then a fly ball out to center fielder Lauren Sutherland, who made running-in grab to retire the side.
After the first inning, no South County batter would reach base again as Bell retired the next 18 hitters she faced, including three strikeouts in the seventh to end the game.
“She was really on,” said Thompson, the South County coach.
McLean extended its 1-0 lead with two more runs in the fifth inning. As she had done in the first, McColgan opened things up with a base hit, this one coming on a pulled line drive single down the right field line by the left-handed swinging leadoff batter. She then went to second on a wild pitch before advancing to third on a sacrifice bunt by Bell. The next batter, Straub, sent a sizzling line drive toward first base where Stallion fielder Nicole Rowley reached high above her head to make the web gem catch for the second out. Carolyn Gilbertson, McLean’s catcher and clean-up hitter, then drew a walk to put runners on first and third.
The next hitter, sophomore Allison Wilhelm, came up with one of her team’s biggest hits of the season when she sent a line drive double into the left center field gap to plate two runs, making the score 3-0.
There was no more scoring in the game thereafter and McLean was on its way to the region finals while South County was experiencing a loss for just the second time in two years.
It was just a tough night at the plate for South County.
“Sometimes we hit well, and sometimes we don’t,” said Thompson. “We’re not a huge hitting team. You’ve got to give McLean credit, they’re a good team.”
McLean had nine hits on the night, including three from McColgan. The bottom three hitters in the McLean line-up — Sullivan, Mary Spulak and Grace Henry — each had singles. Only one Highlander batter struck out.
“We were so nervous for this game,” said Bell. “Chelsey is such a good pitcher and very calm and collected on the mound, which is a good quality for a pitcher.”