For most of the final few innings of Monday's Northern Region girls' softball quarterfinals playoff game between South County and Chantilly, there was the sense that the game was already in the books for a Stallions' team which was enjoying a comfortable five-run lead.
South County, which a week earlier had won its fifth consecutive Patriot District tournament title, had simply hit and pitched better throughout the game. Chantilly, experiencing a successful breakout season this spring, seemed a bit lifeless both in the field and at the plate. It was as if the scorching Memorial Day holiday sunshine was taking its toll on a Chargers' team which had surpassed most expectations just by getting this far into the postseason.
But as it turned out, Chantilly would not go down so easily. The Chargers gamely came alive to put together a final inning rally that nearly resulted in a stunning comeback. When the final out was finally made, South County had barely held off the Chargers, 5-4, to advance to Wednesday's region semifinals against defending state AAA champion McLean.
"It was a little nerve-racking," said South County senior center fielder Julia Kastner, a Stallions team co-captain, on Chantilly's final inning charge.
But Kastner said she was confident South County freshmen pitcher Rebecca Martin, with the Chargers one run down with two outs and runners on first and second, would make the pitch to help secure the win for the Stallions. Martin, who had thrown six shutout innings before the tough seventh, did in fact record a strikeout for the game's final out, to the relief of South County's fans and the disappointment of the Chargers' faithful.
"I knew Rebecca could hang in there and get a groundout or a strikeout," said Kastner, of her younger teammate.
FOR CHANTILLY, which finished with a 15-7 record, it was a frustrating way to end the season - being shut down for six innings before mounting a rally that had to leave the Chargers wondering why they had taken so long to get their bats going.
"It's tough when the bats aren't awake," said Chantilly coach Carmen Wise, whose team had two infield hits through six innings before putting together five base hits in the four-run seventh. "Fortunately they came alive in the last inning. They made things happen in the last inning. I'm proud of the girls for making it this far."
Chantilly had a losing record a year ago and did not make regionals. But the Chargers put things together this spring and, in the postseason, made a rousing run to the Concorde District tournament finals where they lost to Westfield.
Wise's squad, following the district finals lost, came back with a lopsided 19-1 first round region playoff win over visiting Mount Vernon last Friday to advance to the quarterfinals and the holiday afternoon meeting with South County, a program which captured the region crown just two years ago and reached the region semifinals last year.
South County, in its first season under head coach Gary Dillow, who in prior years had served as an assistant coach under former head coach Al Thompson, was 7-6 at the mid-point of the season. The young Stallions, with five freshmen starters, were still rounding into form. Then over the second half of the season, the team took off, winning five of its final six games of the regular season, than winning district tournament games over Annandale, Woodson, and West Potomac to gain the district crown. Following region playoff wins over Langley, 10-5, and the Chargers, the Stallions are 17-7 going into Wednesday's semifinals meeting versus McLean.
"It's just a surprise," said Dillow, of the team's success. "We lost a lot of close games early in the season. I think [those tough defeats] taught us how to win. We played real good at districts and have played two good games so far [at regionals]."
Wednesday's region semifinals round game versus McLean 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 Jamie Bell, the McLean pitching ace.
Game time is scheduled for 7, following the other semifinals round contest between Westfield and Oakton. The two semifinals round winners will meet for the title game 6:30 this Friday night, June 3 at Madison High in Vienna.
MARTIN, South County's starting pitcher, is not a hard thrower but hits her spots well and changes her pitches up. The only hits she allowed over the first six innings against Chantilly were infield singles to junior shortstop Bryanna Kerbuski in the second inning and sophomore third baseman Laura Conaghan, who drilled a line drive off the third baseman's glove in the fourth. For the game, Martin struck out nine batters and walked one.
In Chantilly's big seventh inning, Kerbuski, with one out, grounded a single into right center field. Freshmen first baseman Colleen O'Brien then reached base on an error. That was followed by an RBI single into left center field by pitcher and leadoff hitter Alex Salberg to plate the Chargers' first run of the game and get them within 5-1. Following a strikeout for out number two, junior catcher Victoria Doherty lined an RBI single into center field to make it 5-2. An infield base hit by Rachel Major loaded the bases. Wendy Sloan, Chantilly's senior center fielder and a fourth-year varsity starter who will attend the university of Alabama next school year, then knocked a two-run single into centerfield, getting the Chargers within 5-4. Martin finally got the final out by strikeout and the game was over.
"She pitched great," said Dillow, of Martin's complete game outing. "I think she might have been getting a little tired at the end. She definitely came through and kept throwing strikes."
During the Chantilly seventh inning rally, Dillow paid his pitcher a mound visit at one point.
"Just to make sure she knew I still had confidence in her," he said. "She's a pretty cool kid and doesn't get rattled."
Wise, the Chantilly coach, credited Martin with pitching a fine game.
"She had good ball movement which made it hard for us to hit," said Wise.
FOR CHANTILLY, Sallberg, the team's sophomore starting pitcher, kept South County at bay over the first four innings, allowing two runs (1 earned). In the fifth inning with one out and Chantilly trailing 3-0, Wise elected to go to senior relief pitcher Emily Gembarowicz, who pitched a solid 1-2/3 innings of ball.
South County scored single runs in both the second and third innings to go ahead 2-0. Meghan Patterson's RBI double, just beyond a diving effort to catch the ball by outfielder Jennifer Loh, plated the game's first run in the second. The third inning run came on an RBI single from catcher Haylea Geer, who grounded an RBI single into left center field.
South County scored three times in the fifth inning. The highlight play of the inning came when a heads-up Kastner scored from second base on a wild pitch to make it 3-0.
"You've just gotta be aggressive," said Kastner, who crossed home just ahead of the tag. "The ball went right up in the air and the catcher was looking for it."
Later in the inning, third baseman Caitlin Maglich tripled down the right field line to make it 4-0. The final run for the Stallions came when the following batter, first baseman Brittnee Haynes, knocked a sacrifice fly to left field to make it 5-0.
It was a huge win for the Stallions and Dillow.
"He was an assistant coach last year," said Kastner, of Coach Dillow. "It's been an easy transition this year [with him as head coach]. We really respect him."