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Highlanders Gain Ultimate Prize – A State Crown

Coach Maurice Tawil’s McLean softballers conclude thrilling season with finals victory over Lee-Davis High.

All throughout the postseason, the McLean Highlanders’ girls softball team kept its eyes on the ultimate prize – not necessarily the Liberty District or Northern Region tournament crowns, both of which the team fell just short of attaining, but instead the state championship.

McLean’s incredible, storybook season of 2010 concluded in spectacular fashion last Saturday afternoon, June 12 at Westfield High School when the Highlanders defeated the Lee-Davis High Confederates of Mechanicsville, 4-2, to garner the program’s first-ever Virginia State AAA title.

The Highlanders, earlier in the postseason, had fallen to district rival Madison in both the district and region tournament finals.

But they always held hope that there would be a bigger game and moment ahead – perhaps a state finals game against the same Madison team it had lost to at districts and regionals.

“Our goal was to get into the state finals against Madison,” said McLean senior shortstop Lauren McColgan.

As it turned out, McLean reached the state finals, but instead of Madison being the opponent it was a Lee-Davis squad led by spectacular pitcher Kelly Heinz, a sophomore sensation who had thrown a perfect game in her team’s semifinals win against Madison to boost her team to the finals.

But in the championship finals, on a sizzling hot summer day, McLean’s offensive firepower was too much for Lee-Davis and Heinz as the Highlanders, throughout the game, seemed to be on top of the right hander’s fastball.

McLean knocked around seven hits in the game and benefitted from a shaky Confederates’ defense (3 errors) to plate four runs, more than enough for the Highlanders and gritty junior pitcher Jamie Bell, who gave her team the type of reliable, at times sensational outing which has become standard for her.

Lee-Davis, the Central Region runner-up this season, managed just four base hits – all singles – in the game and never figured Bell out. The right-hander had a rocky start to the game – hitting the first two batters she faced in the bottom of the first inning – but settled thereafter and allowed just the two runs (1 earned) the rest of the way.

McLean had never even qualified for states before prior to this season. Now the Highlanders are state champions.

“When we didn’t win districts or regionals, we were a little down, I admit,” said McLean junior third baseman Jessie Straub, who singled and scored in the fourth inning of the state finals win. “But we came back every day in practice dedicated [to winning states].”

On the morning of Saturday’s state title game, McLean, prior to making its bus trip to Westfield, took its customary batting practice on a pitching machine at McLean. Knowing they were about to face the hard-throwing Heinz, who had struck out 11 Madison batters in the semifinals, McLean head coach Maurice Tawil had the mechanical pitcher throwing heat.

Megan Sullivan, McLean’s senior first baseman, said that pre-game batting practice session was a huge benefit for the Highlanders.

“We knew [Heinz] had pitched a perfect game against Madison, but that didn’t make us nervous,” said Sullivan, whose sixth inning, RBI single into leftfield plated McLean’s fourth and final run of the game against Lee-Davis. “We had practiced [before the finals] on our field with the pitching machine cranked up all the way.”

“We practice against different speeds [on the machine] – against change-ups, pitches inside and outside,” said McLean second baseman Brittany McCray. “We don’t think there’s a pitcher we can’t hit.”

Straub, the McLean third baseman, said a key to beating Lee-Davis was putting the ball into play against Heinz and forcing her defense to make plays behind her.

“We figured their team had been riding their pitcher all year and if we got our bats on the ball we’d be OK,” said Straub. “We wanted this game so bad, especially for our seniors.”

<b>HEINZ RETIRED</b> McLean in order to begin the game in the top of the first inning. Then in the bottom half of the inning, McLean’s Bell, who had thrown a complete game shutout in the Highlanders’ 5-0 state semifinals win over Ocean Lakes (Virginia Beach) the day before at Westfield (see semifinals story on the web), hit the first two batters she faced. Whether it was championship game nerves or what, she quickly regrouped and got out of the inning unscathed – thanks in large part to battery mate catcher Carolyn Gilbertson, who threw out lead runner Charyssa Parent attempting to steal third base for the innings first out. Straub, the McLean third baseman, applied the tag out on that key first inning play.

Lee-Davis opened the game’s scoring in the bottom of the third inning, utilizing an infield single, an opposite field, slap single into left field, an error and a RBI fielder’s choice to plate the game’s first run.

But McLean answered in the fourth. Straub singled into left field to start things off before Gilbertson, on a sacrifice bunt, reached first on an error with Straub going to third. One out later, with Gilbertson having moved up to second on a stolen base, senior Lauren Sutherland hit a fielder’s choice groundball to first base to plate Straub, who slid home safely, barely beating the throw to the plate.

Two innings later, with the score tied at 1-1, McLean broke through for two runs - perhaps the Highlanders’ most critical runs of the season. Gilbertson reached second base as a result of a throwing error to start off the inning. Sophomore Allison Wilhelm, the next batter, then advanced her to third on a sacrifice bunt. Lauren Sutherland, a senior who had doubled in the second inning, then singled into right field to score Gilbertson for a 2-1 Mclean lead. Sutherland then stole second base before scoring on Sullivan’s single into left field to make it 3-1. Heinz, who struck out eight for the game, retired the next two batters to end the inning.

In the seventh, McLean scored an insurance run. McColgan hit a groundball double all the way to the right center field fence to begin the inning. Bell then sacrificed her to third. One out later, with Gilbertson at the plate, McColgan scored on a wild pitch to make the score 4-1.

That was the score going into Lee-Davis’ final at-bats. The Confederates got their leadoff hitter on by error. Later in the inning, that base runner would cross the plate on a wild pitch but it was not enough for Lee-Davis. Straub, with her team ahead, 4-2, made an outstanding stop of a groundball smash hit to her at the hot corner. She made the throw to first base for the inning’s second out and the Highlanders, with nobody on base, were on the verge of winning the state title.

Lee-Davis batter Amanda Parker, the Confederates’ No. 3 hitter in the line-up, then hit a slow roller groundball to first baseman Sullivan, who took a few steps in to field the ball before making a short toss to second baseman McCray, who was covering first. McCray caught the throw from her teammate, the umpire made the `out’ call and the McLean Highlanders were champions. Both Sullivan and McCray, after teaming up for that final out, displayed huge smiles of joy and, perhaps, a little bit of shock that the enormous moment had finally arrived. All of the McLean players celebrated wildly.

“Every emotion was there,” said McCray, a senior co-captain, of that moment of the final out. “I was completely blank and didn’t know what to think. This is the highlight of my softball career. Most of us have played together for three or four years and been friends since we were in elementary school.”

“It was the best feeling, I can’t describe it,” said Sullivan, of the emotions of winning the state crown. “This [state championship] is what we wanted. I always hoped for it but didn’t imagine it would happen. Now it’s real.”