By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
GOOSE LAKE —
Travis Eversmeyer has emphasized the importance of playing solid defense to his Northeast softball team.
That meant more than just playing error-free softball Tuesday evening. The Rebels also turned key plays in the field as they opened postseason play with a 4-1 victory against visiting West Liberty in a Class 3A Region 5 quarterfinal.
“We’ve been really preaching to the girls that in the postseason defense is going to give you a chance to win at the end, even when you’re not hitting the ball,” Eversmeyer said. “The last five or six games we’ve had, we’ve had one error or less. The girls are doing an outstanding job on defense.”
Perhaps no defensive play was bigger than the one on which West Liberty scored its only run.
Northeast (23-11), the 15th-ranked team in Class 3A that lost the coin flip to determine which team batted last, had scored the game’s first run in the top of the fourth inning. But, moments later, the Comets (14-16) appeared poised to pull even or go ahead.
They loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the fourth on back-to-back singles by Meredith Nichols (2-for-3) and Audra Bridenstine (3-for-3) and a walk to Kristi Feldman. That brought up Hailey Daufeldt, West Liberty’s second-leading hitter (.357) and team leader in home runs (4) and runs batted in (23).
Daufeldt launched a fly ball to center fielder Morgan McAleer for the first out, but it was deep enough for a sacrifice to score Nichols. McAleer made her throw to the plate, where catcher Baylie Parson alertly saw Bridenstine break for third. Parson fired the ball to third baseman Kelsey Carder, who chased Bridenstine back toward second, then threw to second baseman Tierra Hildebrandt, who tagged out Bridenstine in the rundown. Winning pitcher Maddison Daniels struck out the next batter, and the Rebels were out of the inning with just one run scored.
“The inning where they loaded the bases, I thought, was the crucial inning in the game,” Eversmeyer said. “They had bases loaded and no out, and somehow we only allowed one run. That was huge. That was the turning point in our favor, I thought.”
Two innings later, the Rebels came up with two more key defensive plays. Nichols hit a one-out double in the sixth, and Bridenstine singled up the middle to put runners on the corners. Feldman followed with a sharp comebacker to Daniels, who was surprised to see Nichols well off the base as she fielded the ball.
“It definitely made me nervous with her at third,” Daniels said. “I saw her right by me, so I knew she was off far, so I knew I had to fake and make sure she didn’t get in. I didn’t think I’d be able to see her from where I was getting it.”
Realizing that Nichols was too far off third, Daniels ran toward her for a short rundown before tossing the ball to Parson, who made the tag.
“It definitely gives me relief; it makes me calm down a little bit so I can just focus on getting the outs,” Daniels said.
“That was huge momentum,” Eversmeyer said. “That’s one thing Maddison has kind of struggled with this season, and she did a fantastic job on that play of running at the girl and making her choose what direction she was going to go. That’s something we’ve been working on with her, and she did an outstanding job not panicking in that situation and came up with a big play.”
Bridenstine advanced to third on the play, but then Parson made another key play. A pitch from Daniels squirted away from the catcher and Feldman took off for second base, but Parson retrieved the ball and fired a strike to shortstop Aleenah Marcucci, who made the tag for the third out.
Big plays weren’t left alone to the defense, though. Northeast made several on offense, too.
Brittany Stoll (2-for-3) drove in the game’s first run on a 12-pitch at-bat on which she fouled off eight pitches before delivering a single to left field that scored Carder from third.
“I was just working on getting the bat on the ball,” Stoll said. “I didn’t want to pop it up. She kept jamming me, so I just kept fouling it off. With Kelsey at third, I just had the mindset that I wanted her to score, so I put it in play and that’s what happened.”
Emily Franks came up with the next big hit, a one-out double in the top of the fifth.
“My main goal was to not strike out,” she said. “I was supposed to go to the front of the (batter’s) box so her rise ball wouldn’t break on us and we’d swing and miss the ball. I’m not sure (if that’s what Martin threw); I was way up in the box, so it was just a strike.”
That hit allowed the Rebels to play small ball, their specialty, with the top of the order coming to the plate.
“It’s huge, and you know with Aleenah up, she has the chance to beat out the bunt,” Eversmeyer said. “Emily gets to third base on Aleenah’s bunt, and Aleenah beats it out, then we have first and third. Most likely we’ll steal or bunt again. It just sets up our whole inning, and the girls do a great job of buying into that and understanding that when it’s their time to be called upon, they’re going to put it down and move those runners.”
It’s a situation Marcucci relishes.
“It gives me a lot more confidence when I’m at the plate and someone else is on second or first or anywhere because then I feel as if I don’t have to get on, I just have to move the runner,” she said.
Franks liked seeing the top of the order come up, too.
“Once I knew Aleenah was following me it was like, ‘Yes, I’m going to third,’ “ she said.
Marcucci stole second, and when neither middle infielder covered the bag, Bridenstine’s throw went into center field, allowing Franks to score and Marcucci to take third. Rylee Dickey followed with another bunt, reaching first when the Comets concentrated on Marcucci, who was holding at third. After Dickey stole second, Carder laid down a bunt that went for an infield hit and scored Marcucci to make it 3-1.
“It feels really good to know that we have control of the game because small ball is our game,” Marcucci said. “That’s how we win games, by playing small ball and bunting and scoring.”
The lead was just what Daniels wanted to see.
“It makes me feel a lot better when we have a big lead,” she said.
Daniels allowed a total of six hits and one walk, but she struck out an equal number of batters.
“Maddison is hitting her spots,” Eversmeyer said. “They’re not really crushing the ball on her. That helps when she starts out ahead in the count because then they don’t know what pitch is coming and they’re not going to hit the ball as hard.”
Northeast gave Daniels an insurance run in the seventh, and once again, small ball produced it.
Marcucci reached on her third bunt single and went to second when pitcher Shelby Martin’s throw to first was off target. A wild pitch moved Marcucci to third, then she scored on a safety squeeze bunt by Dickey.
“Small ball is our game,” Marcucci said. “I know when I get on base I have batters behind me that can lay a bunt down that can move me.”
With the first postseason game out of the way, the Rebels turn their attention to Davenport Assumption, which routed Northeast’s Big East Conference rival Camanche 12-0 on Tuesday. The two teams square off at 7 p.m. Friday in Goose Lake.
“I know a little bit about them,” Eversmeyer said of Assumption, whose 19-22 record includes 12 losses to state-ranked teams, including seven ranked third or higher in their respective classes. “We’re just excited for the opportunity, and we get to play them on our home field.
“Our big chant the second part of the season has been, ‘Why not us? Why can’t we make the first trip to the state tournament (for Northeast)? Why can’t we, with all the talent we have, make a run at this thing?’ We’re not going to fear them. We respect them a lot, and we know they’re in a 5A league, but they’ve had some losses this year to smaller schools (including Marquette Catholic, Camanche and Clinton — teams Northeast has beaten), and that gives us some hope, and we’re going to give them our best shot.”
NORTHEAST 4, WEST LIBERTY 1
Northeast 000 120 1 — 4 9 0
W. Liberty 000 100 0 — 1 6 2
Maddison Daniels (7 ip, 6 h, 1 r, 1 er, 1 bb, 7 so) and Baylie Parson; Shelby Martin (7 ip, 9 h, 4 r, 3 er, 0 bb, 9 so) and Audra Bridenstine. Multiple hits — Northeast (Aleenah Marcucci 3, Kelsey Carder 2, Brittany Stoll 2); West Liberty (Bridenstine 3, Meredith Nichols 2). 2B — Northeast (Emily Frank, Stoll); West Liberty (Nichols). RBIs — Northeast (Stoll, Carder, Rylee Dickey); West Liberty (Hailey Daufeldt).