By Jason Hoekema
The Lady Bears blanked Seymour in the second round Thursday to move on to the championship game against number two seed, the Mansfield Lady Lions. Two runs in the first and another five in the fifth were “celebrated” with an impromptu fly-over by a Missouri National Guard MEDEVAC UH-60 Blackhawk on Thursday.
Olivia Gastineau went two-of-four appearances with singles which both became runs. Lexie Gastineau reached twice, one base-on-balls and again on a catching error at first after a bunt turned into her second run of the game.
Regan Koop scored one run but led the team with two RBIs bringing-in Lexie for her two runs.
Add Miquia Heinlein reaching on a fielder’s choice for a run and a bouncer down the third base line by Devin Rowe, seven runs on just four hits sunk Seymour.
Sara Mendel threw for three strikeouts and a 3-4 play to first where Macee Cutbirth stretched and kept a toe on the bag were the defensive highlights of Thursday’s game.
Mendel maintained a no-hit, no-run game into the seventh inning, but her bid at a no-no was ended by a triple into deep right center from Seymour’s leadoff batter, Lillie Rasmussen.
Ava centerfielder, Lexie Gastineau, made the sprint to the play but was just short of covering the distance needed to preserve the no-hitter, which would have been an impressive feat for a freshman pitcher to cap off an impressive high school career start.
After Thursday’s 7-0 win Friday wasn’t the prettiest with seven runs allowed in the top of the second and seven errors in the eight-inning game. However, a win is a win and this one was for the Class 2 District 11 Championship.
“We should have just been able to pound them in the ground there and then we got back on our heels,” said coach Rex Sawyer. “We committed a lot of errors. There were four errors that one (inning) and we kind of looked like a circus throwing the ball around, which usually we don’t do.”
Things started like many games in the Lady Bears’ book, opponent batters retired in order in the first followed by runs from the top of the Ava order.
Olivia Gastineau walked on the 3-1 pitch followed closely by Lexie who reached first on a throwing error. Koop took the first pitch from Madalyn Ivy, juicing the bases in what some fans called, “an easy win.”
Miquia Heinlein flied-out to center but sent the ball deep enough for Olivia to tag up and break to home for the game’s first run. Lexie was right on her heels with a steal to second and wheels on a ground 5-3 play for a second run with two away.
Rex Sawyer’s teams – baseball and softball – have a knack for scoring runs on two outs. Whether it be pressure or a distracted opponent defense, two outs hardly means the end of an inning for the Ava High School ball programs.
Keeley Akers sent a fast-moving roller past Mansfield second baseman Megan Langley for an RBI-single, Koop scoring on the play.
Akers stole second, two steals in the first for Ava, and was brought home by an RBI-double by senior Makayla Miller who delivered a ball out to the left-center fence on the 1-2 pitch.
Mendel and Devin Rowe both reached first, both swinging on two strikes, with Rowe picking up the Lady Bears’ fifth RBI as Miller stomped the plate.
As do most aggressive offenses, the Lady Bears’ bottom of the first left Mansfield temporarily stunned as it came to a close with a soft hit from Olivia for the 1-3 grounder for the third out.
This is where the similarities to past games ended, though. Last time these two teams met the Lady Bears demolished the Lady Lions 15-0. In that game Langley was in the circle and couldn’t get a bead on the Ava offense.
This time Madalyn Ivy was in command through eight innings, and she made the Bears’ bats work diligently through a flip-flopping game.
“Taking nothing (away from) Mansfield, they gave us all they had,” said Sawyer. “(We) made things happen and did a super job.”
Lauren Jones lucked out with a deep liner down the third base line. Inches closer to the parking lot and it would have been a foul ball, but this one stayed fair despite winds blowing right-to-left across the field.
The hit resulted in a double and a spark that caused worry for Ava’s postseason hunt. Mendel struggled in the second to gain the command she has routinely displayed in the one spot and errors by the Ava defense were flattening as mistakes ate-up and erased the five-run lead.
Mendel walked two and batters got her for three hits, but it was fielding errors by Cutbirth which allowed three batters to reach first.
Langley singled and Ashlynn Heil took one of those walks to juice the bags with no outs. Mendel was able to muster a looking strikeout on Morgan McGuire, but only after the two battled to a full count.
The Mansfield RBIs started cutting away at the 5-0 lead with Logan Jones reaching on an error for an RBI. Maddie Coble followed in the same fashion, earning an RBI after reaching on a second error by Cutbirth.
Hailey Nelson came up big with a solid, three-RBI double to deep left, scoring Heil, Jones and Coble to tie the game at five.
Gracie Williams reached on another error, made third on a catching error, then scored on a throwing error to home plate. The Lady Lions now led 7-5.
The bases remained full, but in infield fly amounted for out two and Olivia came up with an inning-ending save after Akers fumbled the ball into the air which was snagged-up by Gastineau who threw to first to stop the damage.
In the second inning, Lexie reached first on an error and stole second. Koop was retied on a pop-up to Ivy in the circle but Heinlein hit for an RBI-single, Lexie scoring to close the gap to 7-6 Mansfield.
Back-to-back 6-3’s retired Cutbirth and Heinlein, keeping the Lady Lions ahead by one going into the third inning.
The Ava defense regained their composure after the sloppy second inning, Mendel getting a called strike three on the 2-2 pitch to Jones. Coble doubled into center followed by a dropped catch in left by Koop for a single to Nelson.
Coble was on third with Williams making her third appearance. She grounded to Olivia Gastineau who opted for the fielder’s choice to home. Heinlein was able to make the catch and get the tag to put Coble out at home, saving a run.
Two away and Ivy ran Mendel up to a full count with a quality-at-bat which ended on the seventh pitch, a whiff.
The Lady Bears dug themselves out, but their offensive bid in the third was a retired seven-through-nine.
Mansfield started applying serious pressure to the Ava dugout with another three runs in the top of the fourth, leading 10-6 to bolster the Lady Lion fan base. Cutbirth missed the grounder, allowing Jones to reach on what should have been a routine 4-3 play, instead Jones racked-up the count on Mendel with a QAB for seven pitches.
Langley walked for two on, luckily the infield fly rule came into effect with a popup from Heil.
Jones made it to third with a single from McGuire and a walk to Jones. On a passed ball by Ava catcher Miquia Heinlein, Jones was able to score on her own before RBIs from Nelson and Williams brought in the ninth and tenth runs.
“(I told them to) not give up on it,” said Sawyer. “Just score one run here, one run there. Let’s just keep playing.”
Ivy ended the top of the fourth with an infield fly to Olivia Gastineau. Then the tie came.
Olivia flied out to center on the 1-1 pitch, but a single from Lexie started a four-run sprint for the Lady Bears. Koop walked – she was hit by pitches the other three times she reached – and Heinlein singled to load the bags.
Cutbirth wore the first pitch, Lexie scored. Akers brought in Lexie as she was retired, but as discussed earlier the Lady Bears can make things happen with two put away. Miller singled and picked up the extra base for two RBIs with Kaelyn Stillings and Cutbirth scoring.
Now tied at ten in the fourth came three innings of a stalemate between Mansfield and Ava. Akers got close to scoring the go-ahead in the bottom of the seventh, making her way around off the bats of Miller and Mendel.
But with Cutbirth having flied-out to right and Miller caught at second on the fielder’s choice, a 5-3 retired Rowe on the way to third to send the game into the seventh inning where the Lady Bears put Lexie in scoring position, but stranded two with fly-outs by Heinlein and Cutbirth.
In the same time, Mendel had finally found her command of the game with her and the defense putting away nine of 11 batters into the eighth.
In the extra inning Heil popped up over the plate, Heinlein there for the catch and one away. Then a 5-3 retired McGuire before an on-the-ground, off-balance play by Olivia snagged the 6-3 to end the top of the eighth.
Akers led off the bottom of the extra inning, reaching first on an error at short. Miller came up with the bunt needed to push her forward to second and Mendel singled on a dropped ball in right field advancing Akers to second.
Devin Rowe singled twice in the game with hits into gaps in the outfield. Mansfield coach Aaron Gray knew this could be an RBI single for the walk-off win and intentionally walked Rowe to first, loading bases.
The walk worked against Olivia Gastineau who hit the infield fly to short for the second out. For the nth time this season, the Lady Bears were put into a two-out presser with the need to make runs.
Lexie Gastineau showed for her sixth plate appearance. She had already put up three runs and was put away just once this game. The young outfielder has wheels to match her fielding ability and has been a problem for opponent defenses as it only takes her a single to score from second base.
Ivy was worn down from facing 42 batters, but Mansfield could not risk pulling her either. Stuck in a Catch 22 with no other pitcher to match up to the Lady Bear offense, Ivy started to deliver the ball to Lexie. Four pitches, four balls.
Losing her mind for a moment as coach Sawyer yelled for her to tag up at first, the Lady Bears clinched the District Championship with a literal walk-off win with Akers trotting home for the winning run.
11-10 in the eighth inning, the Lady Bears – with just two seniors – had turned around a season where the odds were stacked against them by making an ace out of a freshman and supporting her with gloves and bats to put up big wins, last Friday’s included.
8 innings, 42 plate appearances, 38 at-bats, 11 runs on 10 hits, seven errors and nine RBIs sum up Friday’s nail-biter before fans celebrated and prepared for “Game 2” on the other side of the softball field’s press box, Ava vs. Cabool.
“(I feel) great,” said Sawyer. I mean, I’ve done this for so many years, I was pretty calm there. I thought we could win the ball game, just got to keep playing I’ve done it long enough now that I know anything can happen. (The girls) know we don’t ever give up. We just keep playing the game and good things will happen.”
The Lady Bears hosted the Sherwood High School Lady Marksmen on Wednesday in the Missouri State High School Activities Association’s Class 2 State Tournament sectional playoff game. Those results and story will be available in next week’s print and online edition.
If the Lady Bears did win the game Wednesday, they would advance to the quarterfinal round to face the winner between Warsaw and Fatima.