Hayfield Secondary's season-ending 9-0 girls' softball loss to McLean High on Memorial Day earlier this week was enough to convince Hawks' head coach Ron Giovannucci that the Highlanders are the real deal.
The Northern Region quarterfinals round playoff game took place on a hot evening at Falls Church High School, the host site of all four of the quarterfinals round contests played throughout Monday's holiday.
Hayfield, part of the National District, finished the season with an impressive 20-2-1 overall record. The Hawks thrived in the National District, considered to be the weakest of the region's four districts in softball. Their lone district setback this season took place a couple weeks ago on May 19 when they lost to Mount Vernon, 2-1, in the district tournament semifinals. The team's only loss prior to that had come against Westfield, 6-1, way back on March 29 early in the regular season. Westfield, an annual region contender, was victorious over Chantilly in one of Monday's earlier quarterfinals games at Falls Church.
Hayfield, following the loss to Mount Vernon at the district semifinals, bounced back nicely with a 5-1 home win over Robinson in a first round region playoff game last Friday, May 27 to advance to Monday's encounter with McLean, the defending state AAA champion. But the Highlanders played a solid all-around game to end Hayfield's season.
"We just got beat by a good team," said Giovannucci, following the game with McLean. "They're defending state champions and played like it. They're the best team I've seen all year with pitching, defense and hitting. I'll be surprised if they don't win [states again]."
Giovannucci, the longtime coach of the Hawks, said his team had not faced the caliber of pitcher it saw in McLean's Jamie Bell on Monday. Bell, a senior, was the Highlanders' starting pitcher on the way to the state crown last year and is considered perhaps the region's top pitcher.
"We haven't seen pitching like that," said Giovannucci, of the right-handed throwing Bell. "She's real good at moving the ball around. …We're in the National District and the competition is not that good. We won all our district games except to Mount Vernon in the district semifinals. We got a little complacent after going undefeated in the regular season."
McLean, with the win over Hayfield, saw its record improve to 22-3. The Highlanders, the top seeded team from the Liberty District, defeated Stone Bridge, 4-1, in the recent district championship game on May 23 at Madison High School. They then went on to defeat Lake Braddock, 4-2, last Friday night at home in a first round game at regionals to advance to the meeting with Hayfield.
McLean is next scheduled to play South County in a region semifinal game set to take place on Wednesday, June 1 of this week at Robinson. Game time is scheduled for 7 p.m., following the other semifinals round contest between Westfield and Oakton. The two semifinals round winners will meet for the title game 6:30 p.m. this Friday, June 3 at Madison High in Vienna.
McLean is looking for its' first-ever region crown. A year ago, the Highlanders lost in the region finals to Madison before going on to win the state tournament.
Wednesday's region semifinals round game versus South County will mark the third consecutive year in which the two teams have met in the round of four. Two years ago, the Stallions defeated McLean in a semifinals affair on way to capturing the region championship. Last year, McLean defeated the Stallions in the semifinals to earn an automatic bid to states.
"This is our third year at the semifinals and we've faced South County every year," said Bell, the McLean pitching ace.
Westfield, under first year head coach Gary Dillow, won its fifth consecutive Patriot District tournament two weeks ago. On Memorial Day, the Stallions defeated Chantilly, 5-4, to move on to the region semis.
HAYFIELD, in the holiday loss to McLean, had several opportunities to touch Bell and the Highlanders up for some runs, but could not break through against the All-Liberty District pitching standout. Over six innings, Bell, in the shutout win, allowed five base hits (all singles) while striking out six and walking two.
By the middle innings, Bell had a nice lead to work with after McLean had scored a run in the bottom of the second, four in the third, and three more in the fourth to take a commanding 8-0 advantage. Bell retired the side in order just two times — in the first and fifth innings.
In the second, Hayfield had runners on first and second with one out following a pop fly single into left center field by senior catcher Samantha Perry. But Bell retired the next two Hawks' batters on groudouts to first baseman Lauren Hahne, the latter grounder resulting in a nifty, back-handed pickup by the sophomore fielder.
In the fourth, Hayfield's first two batters reached base — pitcher Amber Fowler reaching by walk and shortstop Megan Perry Shifflett grounding a single up the middle to advance Fowler to second. Bell struck out the next two batters before walking Jessica Reynolds to load the bases. But she got another strikeout to get out of the jam. The Hawks also had a chance to score in the sixth with two outs and runners on first and second as a result of singles by both Fowler and Taryn McElhenny. But Bell forced a come-backer to end that threat.
The scorching heat made it difficult during the middle innings for Bell to keep her pitching hand dry, making it a challenge to control her pitches.
"It was rough," she said. "Normally I lick my fingers to get a grip on the ball but my hand was so sweaty. Those first couple of innings were rough because the sun hadn't set and it was still hot."
Maurice Tawil, the McLean coach, saw much of the day's earlier quarterfinals round games before his team took the field. He said Bell stood out among pitchers in quarterfinals action.
"It was probably the most dominant pitching performance I saw on the day," said Tawil.
McLean hit the ball well throughout the game and had nine hits. Junior right fielder Allison Wilhelm (2 hits, 2 runs), in a scoreless tie, opened the bottom of the second inning with a fly ball double off of the left field fence and later scored the game's first run on a sacrifice fly by catcher Maddie Moore.
The Highlanders broke the game open in the third inning by scoring four times. The big hits of the inning came on run-scoring doubles from third baseman Jessie Straub, who lined a ball over the left fielder's head to score two runs, and Hahne, whose deep fly ball two-bagger tipped off the left fielder's glove for another run.
In the fourth, Bell, McLean's leadoff hitter, roped an RBI single into right center field before second baseman Tina Anwyll (1 hit) squeezed home a run with an RBI bunt fielder's choice.
McLean's last and final run came in the bottom of the sixth inning when shortstop Grace Henry (2 hits, 3 runs), on an infield ground ball, rounded the bases, benefitting on a couple of overthrow errors.
LAST YEAR’S MCLEAN line-up was more experienced than this year’s team. The 2010 squad played outstanding defense behind Bell. This year’s squad has seen its defense get better as the season has moved on. The Highlanders made just two errors on Monday.
"We got off to a slower start defensively [this season]," said Tawil. "We were a very strong defensive team last year. But we've come on. That's a tight defense behind our pitcher right now."
In last Friday's first round 4-2 region playoff win over visiting Lake Braddock, the Bruins made several errors resulting in McLean runs. In a game that was halted for 90 minutes due to thunderstorms, McLean led 4-0 before Lake Braddock scored two sixth inning runs. But the Highlanders held on in the seventh to win.
"That game could have gone either way," said Bell.