The defending state champion Eastside Blazers got much more from the South Adams Starfires than they likely expected Tuesday in the regional championship game played in the shadow of Eastside’s 2022 state championship, but it was ultimately the number four that doomed the Stars: four errors committed and four walks issued by each Starfire pitcher.
The question of whether South Adams would be able to hit Natalie Lower and create scoring opportunities was answered pretty quickly and the Starfires ended the game with three extra-base hits.
Coach Jessie O’Dell’s prediction that the Stars would have to make several outstanding plays to be in a position to steal a win was also true, but the plays didn’t necessarily come and the Starfire defense made four errors.
“First thing,” said O’Dell, “you gotta tip your cap to Eastside. Our staff knew if we were going to beat them, we were going to need to keep pace with them and have a break or her there. That just did not happen. We can’t play the defending state champion and walk eight and have those errors. That is giving away way too many opportunities. Five of the eight girls who walked scored.”
It was Eastside, though, who made the biggest play of the game in the fourth inning. After the Blazers felt they were robbed of a big home run in the second inning by the umpires, they robbed one themselves, with left fielder Jayci Kitchen making a spectacular catch over the fence to pull one back off the bat of Kenzie Neuenschwander, who would have cut the home team’s lead to just 6-3.
Gracy Bixler started the game for the Starfires and walked Kitchen to start her night. A double scored Kitchen and the Stars booted a ground ball by Grace McClain to make it 2-0 Blazers with just one out recorded in the game.
At that point, it looked like the pundits had it right and Eastside was on its way to a 10-0 win in five innings, but coach O’Dell’s team dug down deep and stayed in the game.
“To our girls’ credit, our girls don’t quit playing,” noted O’Dell. “In the third inning we had something going and scored two runs and had Peyton in scoring position. Scoring runs on Eastside is no easy task, but we probably needed to cut the lead to a 5-4 game that inning. That inning was the only inning we had more than four kids up in the inning. Lower on the mound did a great job for Eastside and they also played very good defense.”
Bixler got a strikeout and got out of the inning, but South Adams went 1-2-3 in the second against Natalie Lower, who struck out Bixler to end the inning.
The two pitchers swapped spots and Lower drew a walk from Bixler, setting up the biggest rally of the game for the eventual regional champions. Bixler got to two strikes on the next two batters but eventually walked the bases loaded and the Starfires made another crucial error to fall behind 4-0.
“We also got out of some big time jams,” said O’Dell. “Peyton had to come into the game with runners on base and not much of a warm up. Then, Peyton struck out their leadoff hitter with bases loaded. They get a hit there and they might have sent us home in five innings. Even though our girls had the air taken out of us several times, our kids kept with it and expected to score runs.”
Coach O’Dell made the decision to swap pitchers, bringing in Peyton Pries to get out of the jam.
Bixler ended her outing with 1.2 innings pitched and just one hit allowed, but it was the four walks that led to the five runs.
Pries allowed a double to Katie O’Brien, the first hitter she faced and then Grace McClain hit a long ball over the fence to make it 7-0, but before she could make it around the bases, the home run was waved off, with the umpire ruling O’Brien had left early.
The big break for South Adams seemed to ignite the offense, with No. 9 hitter Cora Baker laying down a perfect bunt single and Macy Pries driving her in with a triple to left. Lower got Bekah Patterson out with a pop-up but Peyton Pries drove in her sister to make it 5-2, although she was stranded at second when Sofia Schwartz popped up for the third out.
The biggest moment of the game for Peyton Pries came after she allowed a run in the third and had the bases loaded. The senior kept her team’s hopes alive with a big strikeout of Kitchen to keep it 6-2.
Starfire batters were unable to make any progress against Lower in the next two innings and it was Lower who started another Blazer rally in the fifth with a leadoff walk. Eastside bunted over Lower’s courtesy runner to second and bunted again, but the Starfires threw the ball away, allowing the courtesy runner to score and Kitchen to take second.
Eastside added one more in the seventh and after allowing a double to Neuenschwander to lead off the bottom of the seventh, Lower got three outs in a row, two by K, and the Blazers were regional champions again.
Lower needed just 105 pitches to navigate seven innings, allowing four hits and striking out 11 batters, while walking just two.
Pries ended her night with 4.1 IP and seven hits allowed. One of three runs charged to her was earned. She struck out three batters.
“We had a very fun year. Our upperclassmen made a point of working hard and having expectations, but also being loose and having a good team. It was a good year. We have a lot of young kids playing in our lineup and to be one win away from a 20 win season…we will take that. We are going to miss our three seniors. They have been important to our program for many years.”
Eastside will face Madison-Grant at Warsaw Saturday at 1 p.m. for a spot in the Semi-State final against either Andrean or Delphi.