ASHLAND — They scraped together two unearned runs before they had a hit — and hit safely just twice all day.
They popped out 15 times, struck out three times and committed three errors.
But Elyria’s top-ranked Pioneers made the whole mess work for their 30th victory Friday, a 2-1 state semifinal thriller over unheralded Mason. As unlikely as it seemed, it sent the Pioneers into the Division I state softball final at 3 p.m. today in Ashland’s Brookside Park.
There, they’ll take on the Hudson Explorers (27-3), who came from behind to nip Pickerington Central, 5-4, in the first of Friday’s two semifinals. Hudson won the Akron regional last week by eliminating second-ranked North Canton Hoover, 2-0. Hoover defeated Elyria by the same score in the 2006 state championship game.
To start the trip to Ashland, the team will receive a police escort down Middle Avenue near the high school, where a crowd of fans is expected to gather shortly after noon today. Their bus will leave from the Pioneers’ practice center at old West High School about 12:15 p.m.
Elyria won Friday’s game in part because of the baserunning of leadoff hitter Kristin Sito, who scored on an error she induced in the first inning. The other part was the running of Jess Mandula, who scored in the second inning on Sarah Bracey’s sacrifice fly to center field.
Mason’s Comets (17-15) got an unearned run of their own in the bottom of the second, but Pioneers pitcher Megan Bashak made the margin hold up.
From that point, the junior southpaw allowed just two hits the rest of the way. She struck out eight and walked none. At one point, she retired seven straight Mason batters and retired four in a row to end the game. The final two outs were her seventh and eighth strikeouts.
Bashak remained sharp despite two protracted rain-lightning delays that totaled two hours and 10 minutes.
“I worked hard (pre-game) to get everything going good, then we had the rain delay and my arm started to tighten up,” Bashak said. “I had to get loosened up again. I went hard again, then we had another rain delay. It was like my arm kept loosening up and tightening up.
“The last time I was warming up, nothing was working and I got scared. But I figured it will be better (in the circle). I have the defense and it’s OK. Just pitch and if you have the defense, it’s fine.”
Things looked fine when Sito led off the game with a walk. Andrea Nagy sacrificed her to second and she went to third when her cousin, Tess Sito, reached on an error. Catcher Jen Bower then lifted a fly into short center field.
Sito faked a dash for home, but held up. Mason’s Britni Tibbs rifled the ball toward the plate, it got past catcher J.D. Engelman and Sito scored.
“We’ve been working on bluffing, as (coach Ken Fenik) calls it,” Sito said. “When we’re on third and the ball’s in the outfield after they catch it, you come off the base as hard as you can and even though you’re not going home, they’ll throw it. She threw it, the catcher got in front of it, but it got away and I scored.”
Fenik said Sito reminded him of “Gumby,” the decades-old flexible, animated television character.
“I was right in line with her coming down the third base line,” he said, “and what a great job she did of wiggling her body and getting down and touching the plate with her hand. She looked like Gumby for a while and then Superman.”
Mandula, who had one of the Pioneers’ hits, walked to lead off the second inning. She moved to second when Andrea Stolarski reached on an error, then both runners moved up on Jess Bellottie’s sacrifice bunt. Mandula ran home on Bracey’s timely fly ball to center.
“I got the walk and knew I had to get the job done,” Mandula said. “(Stolarski and Bellottie) moved me around and when Sarah popped it up, I knew I had to score. (Fenik) screamed, ‘Back,’ and then, ‘Go,’ and I just took off.”
Bracey knew her routine fly would send a run home.
“It was a fly ball and I was sure it would either get down and (Mandula) would score, or they’d catch it and ’Dula would tag,” the sophomore Bracey said. “She’s slower with her knee brace, but she’s still fast and I knew she would make it. She’s smart on the bases and she’s quick.”
Fenik said he and his staff do statistical studies of how the Pioneers perform in various situations. He said Elyria scores about 80 percent of the time when a batter leading off an inning reaches base. Both runs came after the leadoff batter reached.
The Pioneers made the defensive play of the game when they nailed Mason’s Christin Miller trying to steal second with two outs in the fifth. Miller took off, noting that neither Nagy, the shortstop, nor Mandula, the second baseman, was covering second.
But Kristin Sito, moving in from center field, covered the bag and took Bower’s throw.
The Pioneers raised their record to 30-3, improving on the school-record 29 wins they set in their regional final victory over Strongsville. Friday’s victory was their fifth straight by one run. Their district and regional finals victories over Amherst and Magnificat, respectively, went into extra innings.
This is Elyria’s fifth appearance in a softball Final Four and third in a state championship game. They won the Division I crown in 2002.
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or email@example.com.
ab r h bi ab r h bi
K Sito 3 1 0 0 Ch Miller 3 0 1 0
Nagy 2 0 0 0 Baas 3 0 0 0
T Sito 3 0 0 0 Ca Miller 3 0 1 0
Bower 3 0 0 0 Jackson 0 0 0 0
Bashak 2 0 0 0 Wills 3 1 1 0
Mandula 2 1 1 0 Engelman 3 0 1 1
Stolarski 3 0 0 0 Morris 0 0 0 0
Bellottie 2 0 0 0 Tibbs 2 0 0 0
Bracey 2 0 1 1 Stone 3 0 0 0
Rye 3 0 0 0
Roark 2 0 0 0
Mountsier 0 0 0 0
Totals 22 2 2 1 Totals 25 1 4 1
Elyria 110 000 0 — 2
Mason 010 000 0 — 1
S — Nagy, Stolarski, Bellottie, Tibbs. SB — T. Sito, Stone. SF — Bracey. LOB — Elyria 4, Mason 4. E — Bellottie, Stolarski, Bashak, Ch Miller, Engelman, Mountsier.
IP H R ER BB SO
Bashak (W,19-2) 7 4 1 0 0 8
CaMiller (L,11-8) 7 2 2 0 3 3