LAGRANGE – Depending on which side of the softball diamond the teams sat, the makings of what unfolded on the field Monday night in the Class 3-A No. 21 Lakeland Softball Sectional were either luck, or just how they planned it.
Tippecanoe Valley found itself in the right places at the right times – three times to be exact – as fortune found its defense in a trio of unconventional double plays to help the underdog Vikings to a 9-4 win over an upstart and crushed NorthWood side.
The second inning started the defensive buzz for Valley. With a runner on first, NorthWood’s Allie Mattingly hit a rocket to right field that was tailing away from Madison Strong, but the sophomore stuck out her glove just in case and found the screaming Mimi. Paige Hershberger, who reached base on a fielding error to open the inning, had gotten almost to second base as Strong caught the ball and fired it back to first for the double dip.
An inning later, Mariah Benzing caught a frozen rope from Madelyn Schwartz and flipped to first for another casualty. If things couldn’t get worse for NorthWood, it did in the fourth. With the bases loaded, Brynne Flickinger hit a line drive to center, which Diana Baca caught and chucked back to second for an inning-ending double play. Clinging to a 6-4 lead, the defensive wizardry became the key component to Valley’s survival.
“It was a great catch by Madison Strong and was just in the right place,” said Valley coach Chris Kindig. “She had the wherewithal to throw it back to first base and get it online. That was a very timely play for us, a real momentum swing.”
The game looked as though defense would be an option as the opening innings unfolded. A three-run homer in the first inning by NorthWood’s Jodie Ramer had the Panthers up 4-1 and thinking rout. But Valley answered right back, loading the bases in the top of the second and getting a run on a hit by pitch absorbed by Lauren Early – the first of two on the night – then Baca coming through with a huge three-run double in the right-center field gap. Baca would come home moments later when Danielle Adams doubled. A 4-1 NorthWood lead was now a 6-4 Valley advantage.
“We just got some very timely hits tonight,” Kindig said. “In the past week or two, we have really started to hit the ball better. There was a stretch early in the season where we weren’t scoring any runs, so tonight you score nine runs, you’ll win a lot of ballgames. Especially in a sectional setting against a good defensive team like NorthWood.”
To say Valley controlled the pace of the game would be a slight to NorthWood, which crushed the ball all seven innings, just at people. The Panthers would put two more runners on base in the sixth, but a bomb from Katie Rhoade was tracked down by Baca to end the threat. The sixth inning already had Hershberger get gunned down at home when Valley threw the ball around the infield following Hershberger’s triple. A slight delay by Hershberger around third was enough for Emily Hilliard to fire home for the out.
NorthWood put two more runners on in the seventh, with Flickinger flying out to Baca to send Valley into the semi’s.
“You have to tip your hat to Tippy Valley, they hit the ball when they needed to,” said NorthWood coach Ryan Mattern. “I tried to tell the girls, sometimes when you do everything right, things still don’t always go your way. That’s a life lesson. We have been begging them all year long to hit the ball hard. And we do it tonight and, I don’t know how many hard line drives we hit, but they were all right at them and were caught.
“We just couldn’t get that one to get the flood gates open.”
While Valley did have some punch early with the bats, the team finished with just six hits off the three NorthWood pitchers. What killed NorthWood were walks, which combining four-ball passes with hit-by-pitch counts, totaled 11 on the night. Eight of the nine runs Valley scored were from free passes.
Adams had three of the Viking hits, while NorthWood ripped 11 hits and drew four walks on Valley pitcher Kassidy Shepherd, but the sophomore hurler fanned four and let her defense do most of the heavy lifting. Ramer took the loss for NorthWood (10-13), working two-plus innings, giving up five earned and walking five.
Tippecanoe Valley will now prep for a 6:30 p.m. Tuesday first pitch with powerhouse Fairfield (17-8), which advanced after beating Wawasee, 8-0, in the day’s first game. Host Lakeland and West Noble are slated for the second game, which will start approximately 30 minutes after game one.