By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
Preston softball coach Tim Zeimet has been urging his players to take chances and not hold back.
He finally saw them do it Wednesday night, and the Trojans turned some momentum-changing plays in the field that led to a 7-5 victory against Central City in a Class 1A Region 4 quarterfinal game.
“I’ve been telling the girls, make the plays, go ahead and throw it. Don’t hold back,” Zeimet said, referring to two plays where the Trojans erased Wildcats runners at third base. “If a mistake happens, it happens, but you can’t be afraid to make a mistake. If you’re afraid to make a mistake, you’ll never make that play.”
The win gives Preston (15-15) a shot at revenge against Marquette Catholic on Friday in Bellevue. The Mohawks ousted Preston from postseason play last year in a 1-0 game.
The confidence from making those plays Wednesday might be just what the Trojans have needed. They were ranked in Class 1A early in the season but have struggled since losing senior team leader Cassie Aldis to injury at midyear.
“Mentally, I think we thought that losing Cassie — she was our leadoff batter, and she was a big leader on our team — mentally, we just kind of lost it,” said senior left fielder Larissa Ruchotzke, who had three hits to lead Preston’s offense. Ruchotzke was right in the middle of all of Preston’s scoring innings, but the Trojans’ defense was the real key Wednesday.
It made a difference right away.
Jackie Applehans led off the game with a double for Central City (16-26). A sacrifice bunt moved pinch-runner Jessica Etten, then Ashley Kerslake laid down another bunt. Preston third baseman Mallory Kilburg raced in to field the ball, faked going to first trying to draw Etten down the line. Instead of throwing to first, Kilburg shoveled the ball to catcher Emily Rittmer, who fired it to shortstop Ryleigh Keeney covering third base. The throw beat Etten back, and suddenly there were two outs and no longer the runner on third.
“We’ve been working on that the last month, and it finally paid off,” Zeimet said. “We executed it.
“It’s confidence in Mal Kilburg to check, make that fake, to sell it, that you’re going to first. ... We’ve had that happen a couple, three other times, she just didn’t have the courage to throw it to the covering shortstop.”
Although she didn’t turn and throw, the result was the same.
“We worked on it in practice a lot and have never really done it in a game, so why not pull it out now?” Kilburg said. “I was just feeling it. It gets us all pumped up.”
Preston’s offense got going after Kilburg was robbed of a hit when Wildcats shortstop Ashley Iehl nabbed her line drive. Ruchotzke followed with a single up the middle. Adrianna Fier was hit by a pitch, and Brooke Wagner hit a bunt single to load the bases. Markell Stoecken drove in the first run with a sacrifice fly, another scored when losing pitcher Kailey Fleming couldn’t handle a popup and the Trojans made it 3-0 when Keeney beat the throw to first for a run-scoring infield hit.
Central City came back with two runs in the top of the third, but Preston pitcher Lizzie Meier recorded a strikeout with runners on second and third to prevent more damage.
Back on offense, the Trojans chalked up another three-run inning.
“I think it really got our momentum going,” Ruchotzke said. “I was very pumped up, very excited, and I think that helped the other girls see that all you need is one hit and that can really get things going.
Kilburg got the third inning started with a one-out double to left field, and Ruchotzke followed with a line-drive triple into the right-field corner.
“I kind of told myself that all we needed was a base hit, stay confident, stay calm,” Ruchotzke said. “I just knew we needed to get a hit. I had seen that it had gone down the line and I knew that generally that’s a good spot to get to three, but also coach was telling me to try to get there, so I put it all on him. Many times he’s told us in practice that if he tells us to go and we are out it’s his fault and he won’t yell at us, so I trusted him and I just went for it.”
Ruchotzke scored on Fier’s groundout, then Preston made it 6-2 when Wagner hit an infield single, stole second base and scored on an error.
“More runs give us more insurance,” Fier said. “They can still get runs, but they need to get a lot more.”
They got more runs, too, and might have erased Preston’s lead if not for another key defensive play at third base.
The Wildcats were rolling in the sixth inning. A walk and four straight singles cut the gap to 6-5, and they had runners on the corners with no outs.
With Applehans at the plate, Central City tried to work a delayed double steal. It backfired when Preston threw behind Katelin Powers at third, and Kilburg tagged her out.
“It could have been called either way,” Kilburg said. “I don’t know; it was close.”
“Zeimet said: “It was another momentum changer. They had all the momentum at that point. You could tell that the air left their lungs. They knew they blew it.”
The rally died, as Applehans struck out and Iehl hit a grounder back to Meier to end the inning.
Preston carried over the momentum on offense. Kilburg beat out an infield single with two outs to keep the inning going, then Ruchotzke was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
“I just go all out,” Kilburg said. “There’s no sense in not giving it your all. It could have been our last game.”
Fier then went to the plate with no intention to swing until she had taken a strike. She never got one, walking on four pitches.
“Tim always tells us to wait for one (strike), then we know where it is and can get the second one,” Fier said.
With the win in hand, the Trojans turned their thoughts to Marquette Catholic, which beat Springville 10-6 on Wednesday.
The Trojans will face Marquette Catholic in Friday’s 7 p.m. semifinal game in Bellevue. The Mohawks, hoping to make a return trip to the state tournament, defeated Preston three times during the regular season.
“They knocked us out in previous sports, so it would be nice to beat Marquette,” Kilburg said.
The Trojans should go into the game with more confidence now.
PRESTON 7, CENTRAL CITY 5
Central City 002 003 0 — 5 8 2
Preston 033 001 x — 7 11 1
Kailey Fleming (6 ip, 11 h, 7 r, 4 er, 1 bb, 2 so) and Sam Nielsen; Lizzie Meier (7 ip, 8 h, 5 r, 5 er, 3 bb, 10 so) and Emily Rittmer. Multiple hits — Central City (Kaetlin Powers 2); Preston (Larissa Ruchotzke 3, Brooke Wagner 2, Ryleigh Keeney 2, Mallory Kilburg 2). 2B — Central City (Jackie Applehans); Preston (Kilburg, Meier). 3B — Preston (Ruchotzke). RBIs — Central City (Ashley Iehl, Nielsen, Alexis Starry, Powers, Fleming); Preston (Markell Stoecken, Keeney, Ruchotzke, Adrianna Fier 2).