By Mike Deak
MIDDLEBURY – With a week to go, it’s Northridge firmly in the driver’s seat and in control of its destiny as leaders of the Northern Lakes Conference softball standings. The Raiders knocked off Warsaw, 6-0, Friday evening in the NLC grudge match of conference leaders.
The Raiders improved to 11-1 overall with two games to go, getting to the 11th win with a steady mix of timely hitting, solid pitching and knowing its surroundings.
Makena Knepp led off the scoring for Ridge with a shot to left that Makayla Holder dove for but missed, and as Natalya Holder chased the skidding ball on the turf, her attempt to dive for it got past her, allowing the speedy Knepp to end up on third. Jen Robinson then laid down a perfect bunt that brought in Knepp for a 1-0 lead.
Warsaw’s inability to get down a bunt in the top of the fourth left Avery Sleeth on second after a leadoff double. That opened the door for Ridge to increase its lead in the bottom half. Two walks were sandwiched between two outs, but followed with a clever bunt single by Madison Wienert to load the bags. Knepp and Robinson then followed up with a pair of two-run singles to push the lead to 5-0 and Ridge was dancing.
“For us, if we are going to be in a two-out, runners in scoring situation, I want Makenna Knepp and I want Jen Robinson, I want those girls up,” said Northridge head coach Ray Caples. “The girls that actually got it done were the middle of the lineup girls who got on base. We saw our middle and lower lineup girls play really, really well.”
Warsaw’s unfamiliarity with playing defense on turf showed again in the sixth. On a bunt by Meridith Frey, an errant throw by pitcher Tori Tackett whizzed into right field. The ball, however, kept skidding and got past right fielder Megan McKenzie allowing Frey to come all the way around to score without a play.
In a scene where Warsaw will return to Middlebury in two weeks for the sectional, head coach Kevin Dishman made note of his team’s defensive struggles.
“Megan found that out even though she was told that is what happens, she found out in real life that is what happens,” Dishman said of the final turf-related miscue. “She will be ready next time we come up where for if that happens. I don’t think the turf really bothered us that much, though.”
One run would have been good enough for Abby Hostetler. The junior hurler for the Raiders (18-2, 11-1 NLC) moved around her pitches enough to limit Warsaw to just two hits while punching out 14 batters. Hostetler needed just 10 pitches to strike out three in the first inning, and only walked one batter on the night.
“She was doing what she always does well,” Caples said of Hostetler. “She’s got good speed, she’s got movement on all of her pitches, and her accuracy was on target today. I won’t say she hit her spots every time, but she did what she always does, which was execute and hit her spots.”
Tackett took the loss for the Tigers (12-5, 9-2 NLC), giving up nine hits and four earned runs while walking three and fanning five.
The win for Ridge puts them atop the standings with a monster game Monday against Mishawaka, the Cavemen 8-1 through Friday evening. A Raider win would clinch at least a tie for the title, its final game against a winless Plymouth squad. Mishawaka still has five games to cover, including a doubleheader next Thursday at Warsaw, which still has a lot of meaning to the Tigers, who can still claim at least a share with some help.
“Every game for us from now on is a sectional level game from here forward,” Dishman said. “Triton tomorrow. Concord (Monday), we can’t figure them out. We have to be on our toes and play a good game to beat them. They’ve snuck up here and beat some teams lately, and not sure how they are going about and doing that. Then we have Mishawaka in a doubleheader on a school night on Thursday night. Thankfully, we don’t have to make that drive. That will be a huge night for us.”