GREENFIELD — In the middle of the ninth inning, as Anderson and Greenfield-Central continued to battle back and forth into extra innings of Friday night’s Class 4A Sectional 9 softball championship game, Lady Tribe head coach Mike Lee took a moment to reflect.
In one dugout was Greenfield-Central, the 15th-ranked team that had seven seniors and 21 victories. In the other dugout was Anderson, a team with just one senior that had a hot-and-cold regular season before grinding out a 7-4 victory over Richmond in Tuesday’s sectional semifinal.
Two innings later, the Cougars finally broke through, as senior Sara Morris slugged a two-out single to right to score courtesy baserunner Lexi Rankin from second base, giving the hosts a 7-6, 11-inning victory and the sectional title.
The final result stung for sure, but for Lee, the past, present and future was on his mind late into Friday’s game and immediately after it was over.
“I was thinking about how my program has really taken a step forward — regardless of how this comes out,” Lee said of his ninth-inning reflection. “With only one senior — and Azariah (Fuller) has been a huge part of what we’ve done this year, and she will be really missed — everybody else is back, and we’ve got high expectations for next year. I mean, we’re playing a team with seven seniors in desperation mode, and hat’s off to Greenfield. … That was a great ball game.”
Anderson, which ends its season with a 14-13 record, showed it wasn’t willing to back down at any juncture against the more experienced Cougars (22-6).
Greenfield-Central jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the third. Anderson scored one in the fourth. Greenfield-Central got two runs in the fourth. And Anderson answered right back with three runs to take its first lead, 4-3, in the fifth.
“Play the game,” Lee said he told his players. “Have fun. You’ve just gotta play. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake; you’ve got to just let it loose, and that’s what I tell them all the time.”
When the Cougars scored twice in the bottom half of the fifth, held the Lady Tribe scoreless in the sixth and then added another run in the bottom half of the inning, however, Anderson found itself with its back against the wall.
Down two, 6-4, in the seventh, the Lady Tribe quickly found itself down to its last out. But Fuller found a way on base, reaching on a slow-rolling infield single to the right side.
And, on the very next pitch, junior shortstop and cleanup hitter Sierra Cunningham stung a no-doubt home run to straightaway left field, tying the game at 6 and eventually forcing extra innings.
That aggression early in the count — even when they’re down to their final out in the game — is something ingrained in Lee’s players as soon as they enter the program.
“I don’t like taking strikes as a team, and they know that, however, they’ve got to be comfortable in the batter’s box — and, again, they’ve got to play the game,” Lee said. “You’ve got to give them the freedom to do that. And they’re free to do that. Sierra hits a lot of first pitches, and she’s a big-game player.”
The next few innings featured a fierce duel between Greenfield-Central starting pitcher Michala Ballman — another senior — and Anderson reliever Kalin Hubble, a junior. Although both teams saw a few runners reach second, and even third, on occasion in the eighth, ninth and 10th innings, ultimately, Ballman and Hubble were able to squeeze out of trouble and turn it back over to their lineups.
But in the bottom of the 11th, Ballman helped out her own cause by reaching base with a lead-off single on a ball that dropped just in front of a diving Shelby Wright in center field. After a fly out to deep right by No. 3 hitter Morganne Denny moved Rankin, the courtesy runner, to second base, and a walk of Sam Kihega set up runners on first and second with one out.
With dark clouds and a strong storm system moving into the area, a soft lineout to Fuller at second set up Morris with two outs. She came through with the sectional-clinching hit for the Cougars.
Ballman went all 11 innings, throwing 145 pitches — 93 for strikes. She allowed 11 hits and six runs, all earned, while striking out five and walking none.
The Cougars’ offense was led by No. 9 hitter Kinzie Bradley, a sophomore, who went 4-for-5 with three bunt singles and a slap double to left. Morris (3-for-6, double, two RBI) and senior Casey McDaniels (3-for-5, double, run scored) also had at least three hits for Greenfield-Central, which advances to play the winner of Lawrence North and Lawrence Central — which play for the Sectional 10 title Saturday at 10 a.m. — in Tuesday’s regional tilt.
Hubble was effective in relief of Wright, the Anderson starter, as she threw 6 2/3 innings, scattered eight hits and gave up two runs, both earned, while striking out one and walking two.
Fuller went 3-for-5 with two runs scored in the final game of her Anderson career, while Cunningham (3-for-4, double, home run, two runs scored and four RBI) and Hubble (2-for-5, double, 2 RBI) also had standout days at the plate for the Lady Tribe.
“I’m so proud of them,” Lee said. “Other than the final score, there’s no regrets whatsoever.”