Coming into their state championship game Saturday night against Warren Champion, the Cardington softball team had a lot of adversity to overcome.
Not only were they playing against a 30-0 defending state champion team looking for its second straight Division III title, they had to do so without their head coach. After the team’s 10-0 semifinal win over Lore City Buckeye Trail, Tod Brininger became ill overnight and had to be rushed to the hospital, where he remained when the team took the field against a Golden Flashes team that had outscored opponents 309-21 over the course of their season.
That combination proved too much for the Pirates to overcome. After taking an early lead, the team watched Champion come back to take a commanding lead before holding off one last Cardington charge in winning by a 9-4 margin.
“It was really rough looking down at third base and not seeing him,” said Rylie Partlow of Brininger’s absence. “It was rough not having that extra voice.”
“We just found out this morning,” added Brooklyn Whitt. “We had to register what happened and move on.”
Even assistant coach Allen Adams, who served as the head coach for the game, noted that he felt some nerves before the game.
“I was good until we got here,” he said. “Then it caught up with me a bit until the first pitch.”
The coach did do what he could to be available, though, taking advance of modern technology to call and FaceTime players throughout the day.
“Before the game on FaceTime, he gave us our normal pep talk,” said Baylee Adams, who added that he also called several players, including her, during the contest to pick them up and deliver motivation.
Cardington was able to jump out to an early lead in the game, thanks in part to some sloppy play by the Flashes. With one out, Kierson George hit a ground ball that was misplayed by the WC shortstop. Pitcher Allison Smith recorded the second out via strikeout, but then gave up a single to Chelsey Miller and a walk to Partlow to load the bases for Paige Clinger.
The junior first baseman then drew another walk off Smith to bring in George for the game’s first run. However, the Flashes would then get another strikeout to minimize the damage done, keeping the score at 1-0.
“I think she (Smith) was getting a little frustrated with the strike zone,” said Allen Adams. “When you get the bases loaded against a girl like that, you need to get more than one run. Going back to the dugout, I thought that might hurt us.”
The game remained scoreless until the bottom of the third inning, as Smith gave up only one walk over the second and third frames, while Casey Bertke also only surrendered a walk in her first two innings of work. However, in the third inning, Sophie Howell led off with a double and moved to third base on a ground ball out. Smith then hit another grounder, but this one was misplayed to bring in Champion’s first run.
Miscues plagued the Pirates again in the fourth inning. Emma Gumont hit a one-out double for the Flashes. Gabby Hollenbaugh hit a ground ball for the second out, but in attempting to get Gumont off third base, the Pirates committed a throwing error that allowed her to score and give Champion a 2-1 advantage. Another error put Howell on base, but Cardington was able to catch a break to get out of the inning.
Carli Swipas hit a ground ball and it looked like two consecutive errant throws by the Pirates would bring in another run; however, it was ruled that Swipas ran out of the base-path, resulting in the third out.
While admitting that sloppy play on defense that led to a four-error game was costly, Allen Adams gave a lot of credit to their opponents.
“They (the errors) hurt, but if you look at a couple of them, they didn’t cost us any runs at the time,” he said. “They’re (Champion) good and they’re going to be good next year.”
The Pirates would then leave two more on base in the top of the fifth, as Whitt drew a walk and Adams added a single before both were stranded.
Champion then blew the game open in their half of the inning, getting a run-scoring single from Cassidy Shaffer with two on to go in front 3-1. After a single loaded the bases, Gumont then hit a decisive blow, drilling a ball over the wall for a grand slam.
Bertke retaliated with a solo home run in the top of the sixth inning — her team’s first extra-base hit of the game — to bring the Pirates within five runs at 7-2. Unfortunately, the Flashes responded with two runs in the bottom of that inning.
Trailing 9-2 going into the top of the seventh, Cardington made one final rally. After the first two batters of the inning were retired, George drew a walk and Baylee Adams cracked a two-run double to score her. Miller then brought Adams across home plate with a run-scoring single, but Smith would then record the third out to end the game.
“I think we were starting to catch on at the end of the game and were pushing until the last play,” said Baylee Adams.
Cardington finished with six hits in the game, getting a home run and single from Bertke, a double and single from Baylee Adams and two singles from Miller. Bertke gave up nine hits and three walks on the mound, while striking out one.
While the 26-4 Pirates would have rather held the championship trophy after the game instead of the runner-up one, they were still proud of their accomplishments. After making it to the state semifinals last year, they were able to make it one step farther in claiming Morrow County’s first piece of state softball tournament hardware.
“It feels really good,” said Whitt. “It’s a little disappointing we didn’t do as good as we wanted to.”
“It’s been a long season and that’s good,” added Allen Adams. “We played on the last day and that’s important.”
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS