ENGLEWOOD — Who thinks winning a state championship is easy?
Certainly not the Elyria Little League 11-12-year-old All-Stars after the roller-coaster ride of emotions they went through Monday before finally nailing down a 10-7 win over Poland and the state title.
Elyria led 8-1 after four innings but Poland clawed back to make it 8-7 before Elyria put the game away with two insurance runs in the sixth.
“When you’re trying to close out a big game, all of a sudden the strike zone gets a little smaller for your pitcher, and when the other team is hitting it’s like the ball has a set of eyes,” Elyria manager Len Howser said. “It’s tough to finish. That’s why I’m really proud of these girls. They weathered the storm and finished strong.”
The win puts Elyria in the regional tournament for the first time. Play begins in Indianapolis on Saturday and runs through July 25. Elyria opens play at noon against Michigan.
There were plenty of big performances Monday as Gabby Shackelford went 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles, including a big one in the sixth to give Elyria some breathing room at 9-7.
“There was a lot of pressure on me,” Shackelford said of her clutch hit in the sixth. “I just sort of relax and don’t think about the pressure.”
April Howser was 2-for-4 with a double and also got the win, striking out four and walking three. Lexi Reinhardt was 2-for-4 with a double and Faith Hamilton 2-for-4. Becca Kubisen and Cassie Miller also had doubles, while Kaeli Evans and Gabby Zerbini had singles.
In all, Elyria banged out 12 hits, half of which were doubles.
That offensive firepower was a reason for optimism for the Elyria players even as Poland did its best to put a scare into them.
“We stay up and positive,” Haley Schultz said. “Even if we make an error, we shake it off and come back and make the next play. We’re a really good hitting team, so I knew we could come back and score some runs.”
Doubles by Reinhardt and Shackelford got Elyria on the board in the first. In the second, the lead went to 3-0 when Kubisen doubled and Zerbini drove her in with a single. Howser ripped a shot into the gap in left-center that tipped off the left fielder’s glove for another double, scoring Zerbini.
Shackelford walked, stole second and scored on an error in the third to make it 4-0.
Elyria, which came into the game having outscored its opponents 41-2 in the tournament, looked like it was going to make this one another romp when it scored four in the fourth to make it 8-0.
Megan Phares, who started things off when she was hit by a pitch, scored on Miller’s double over the center fielder’s head. Miller was out trying to stretch the play into a triple, but Elyria didn’t slow down as Howser, Reinhardt and Evans came through with consecutive singles to make it 6-0. Shackelford made it 7-0 with an RBI on a groundout and Hamilton singled to make it 8-0.
Poland got its first run in the bottom of the fourth and Elyria went down 1-2-3 in the fifth. Poland cut it to 8-3 in their half of the fifth and had a real threat going.
Kubisen slowed the comeback by making a diving catch on a low liner.
“When it came off the bat I knew it was low and instinctively I knew I had to dive,” Kubisen said. “I felt the ball in my glove, so I covered it with my other hand to make sure it didn’t pop out.”
But Poland wasn’t finished, cutting the lead to 8-5. A triple to left scored two more and cut the margin to one. When the relay throw was off line, Poland sent the runner for home.
With a tie game on the line, Howser grabbed the loose ball and fired it to the catcher, Reinhardt, who tagged the runner out to end the threat.
Elyria got its final two runs with two outs in the sixth when Evans walked, stole second and scored on Shackelford’s double down the left-field line. Hamilton drove in the final run with a single up the middle.
In the bottom of the sixth, Elyria got two infield putouts and Howser ended the game with a strikeout, catching the batter looking on a change-up.