LAGRANGE — Keystone, the state’s second-ranked Division II squad, found itself in a jam against sub-.500 Cloverleaf on Thursday afternoon.
The Wildcats trailed the Colts 3-1 in the fifth inning of their district semifinal at Community Park, and Cloverleaf pitcher Sierra Pickett was working on a two-hitter.
In the end, it took two freshmen, a sophomore and a senior at the top and bottom of the order to pull the Wildcats’ fat from the fire in what became a 7-5 Keystone victory.
But really, now, how does a 26-3 team like Keystone fall behind an unranked opponent with a season-ending 10-19 record?
“We were really confident in our chances today,” Colts coach John Carmigiano said. “Our kids weren’t scared. They came out to win and compete, and I couldn’t be more proud of the effort they gave. Pickett threw really strong at the end of the (regular schedule) and we definitely had a lot of confidence to send her out there tonight.”
“They (Cloverleaf) came with a lot of energy,” Keystone coach Jim Piazza said. “They’re well-coached and it’s a (good) team.”
The victory sends Keystone into a district final against Patriot Athletic Conference rival Buckeye (12-11) at 4:30 p.m. today at Community Park. The winner advances to a regional semifinal at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Bucyrus. The opponent will be either Sandusky Perkins or Maumee, which meet in Genoa today for a district title.
Cloverleaf’s Colts led 1-0 when McKenah Peters, Keystone’s freshman first baseman, tied it with a fence-clearing home run leading off the third.
Cloverleaf took a 2-1 lead in the fifth after Kelsen Lewarchick reached on a two-out error, then scored from second on Hallee Smith’s single to center. And Smith made it 3-1 when she ran home on Karissa Kelling’s single to left field.
For Keystone fans, it must have evoked memories of the 2013 district semifinal, when the Wildcats — who had been voted the country’s No. 1 high school team in 2012 — were upset by Firelands 1-0.
They needn’t have worried.
In the home fifth, another freshman, left fielder Paige Hartley, cut the deficit to 3-2 with a one-out homer over the left-field fence. It became the spark Keystone needed.
“That was the longest ball I ever hit,” Hartley said. “It was my first home run. The pitch was a middle pitch, which is my strongest pitch, and that’s why I think I hit it so far. After I got the hit, I was aware that we started getting pumped up and we had a huge two-out rally.”
With two out in the fifth, senior Morgan McNulty doubled to left and eventually scored the tying run when freshman Sammie Stefan reached on an error. And Stefan gave Keystone its first lead, 4-3, when sophomore third baseman Destiny Weber doubled her home.
Hartley’s homer gave McNulty and the Wildcats a needed boost.
“I knew I needed to have a good hit,” McNulty said of her big double. “I just focused, saw the ball and just did what I had to do. I think when Paige hit that home run it gave us the heart and the confidence we all needed.”
Sophomore shortstop Summer Constable provided the winning margin when, with two out in the home sixth, she drilled a three-run homer over the center-field fence that scored Peters and Hartley ahead of her.
“I know we didn’t come out as strong as we had hoped,” Constable said. “But we have the heart and that’s one of the biggest components you need as a great team. You never want to get down on yourselves, because you never know when you’re going to come back. We definitely have heart and that’s going to (take) us far.”
Even so, it wasn’t over.
The Colts made a final push when with two out in the seventh, Hallee Smith cleared the left-field fence with Lewarchick on first to pull Cloverleaf within two runs. But Keystone senior Emily Cornish, in relief of Lauren Shaw, retired the next batter on a fly ball to center. It was Cornish’s 12th win of the season without a loss.
“How about those freshmen?” Keystone’s Piazza said. “And 8-9-1-2 in the batting order (Peters, Hartley, Constable and McNulty) did a great job. Our lineup hasn’t been the same all year. We go by the teams we face. Once we relaxed and stayed back on the ball like we’re supposed to, we did nice things.”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.