September 17, 2014

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Division III regional softball final: Black River pushes defending champs to the brink before falling

MASSILLON — For six innings, Black River’s softball team went toe to toe with the defending state champions.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, the final inning proved to be their undoing Saturday afternoon.

Sierra Blackson singled home Brooke Culler with two outs in the top of the seventh, giving Warren Champion a 1-0 victory over Black River in the Division III regional championship game.

The dramatic triumph propelled the Golden Flashes (23-3) into the state semifinals, while the Pirates (22-10) finished their most successful season ever.

“Whew, it doesn’t get any closer than that,” said Champion coach Cheryl Weaver, whose program has won four state titles. “I just had a feeling it would be this type of game because Black River is a very good team.

“The further along you get in the tournament, the more the games are like this, where one play could make the difference. That’s why we’re ecstatic right now. We still have a chance to repeat (as champions).”

Culler opened the seventh by drawing a walk, but it appeared she might be stranded after Pirates pitcher Dagmar Smith (16-3) retired the next two hitters on a pop out and ground out.

Blackson, though, broke Black River’s hearts by smashing a single into center field that scored the speedy Culler from second base. That was all the offense the Golden Flashes needed to close the curtain on the Pirates’ first trip to regionals.

“I really thought these were the two best teams in the state playing today,” Pirates coach Merle Simmons said. “It’s just too bad it happened in the regional final because this might have been the state championship out there.”

Neither squad got much going on a 91-degree day that saw the home plate umpire take five extended hydration breaks, which contributed to the tight game lasting nearly two hours.

The Pirates only put five runners on base against Golden Flashes pitcher Lindsay Swipas (20-1) — via two hits, two walks and one hit batter — and never seriously threatened to score.

Black River left fielder Kailey Summer accounted for both hits with singles in the fourth and seventh, while center fielder Jessica Chidsey was the only Pirates baserunner to get into scoring position.

Chidsey was hit on the arm by Swipas as she led off the second inning, then moved to second on a wild pitch. Swipas promptly struck out the next three batters to quell the threat.

All-Ohio honoree Swipas finished the game with 14 strikeouts, including seven in seven plate appearances by the bottom three hitters in Black River’s batting order.

“Lindsay is an amazing pitcher and I have enormous respect for her,” Smith said. “I really hope she leads Champion to the state title because she deserves it. You root for people like that because she plays the game the right way.”

Smith (16-3) also was terrific in the biggest game of her career. She scattered six hits and two walks while striking out eight Golden Flashes — despite a lingering back injury that forced her to miss 12 games earlier in the spring.

Champion didn’t push a runner past first base until the fifth, when Emile Hohvart and MacKenzie Kizer had back-to-back singles to start the inning. Smith struck out Culler and induced Swipas into a pop out before walking Darian Rogers to load the bases with two outs.

Black River got out of that jam when shortstop Nora Smith snagged a hard grounder by Blackson, and threw out Kiser on a fielder’s choice at third.

It was one of many fine fielding plays made by Nora Smith, third baseman Kayla Finkel and Summer, who helped their ace strand nine Golden Flashes.

“It’s been that way all season for us on the left side,” Simmons said. “Finkel and (Nora)

Smith have done an outstanding job together, and Kailey was very good both in left field and when she was playing third base because of injuries.

“It’s just a shame that they’re all seniors because we’re really going to miss their defense.”

Simmons then glanced toward his players in the dugout and added, “Really, we’re going to miss them — and all eight of our seniors — for a lot more reasons than that. We’re losing six starters, but we’re also losing the girls who have set the standard for our program.

“They’re the first Black River team to win 20 games and the first team to go to regionals. I’ll always be grateful for what they’ve done together.”

Contact Brian Dulik at 329-7135 or brisports@hotmail.com.