ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Coach Carolyn Long had every reason to be in tears after her Hillsboro softball team suffered a pair of heartbreaking, walk-off losses Thursday to Smoky Valley at Lindsborg, 3-2 and 7-5.
In both games, Smoky Valley rallied in its last at-bat to steal a victory from her young Trojans. In the nightcap, sudden death came via a two-out grand-slam home run by the Vikings’ No. 8 hitter.
Despite her disappointment, Long was smiling and upbeat when it was over.
“We’ve made some grave improvements since our last couple of games and played well enough to win, we just need to learn how to finish,” she said. “The Smoky Valley coach even commented to me that they didn’t deserve the wins.
“The girls played with everything they had. That’s what I walk away with. I am so proud of them-we’ll come around.”
Long had reason to be encouraged. Coming off a 16-error performance at Haven two days earlier, the Trojans played with focus and determination against a solid Viking team.
In Game 1, sophomore Marissa Diener locked into a scoreless pitching duel with Smoky senior Danyel McGaughey that lasted until the bottom of the third. The Vikings finally got on the scoreboard when Jennifer Sherwood doubled and then came home on a single by Allyson Weldy.
That 1-0 lead held until the top of the seventh, when the Trojans took the lead in their last at-bat.
Amy Duerksen started the rally with a single. After Diener walked, Laura Lindsay reached on an error to load the bases.
Duerksen then scored on an error on a ball hit by April Funk, and Diener scored on a fielder’s choice by Niki Street.
The Trojans were pumped with the turn of fortune, but they faced a Viking team that refused to roll over.
The first four batters came out swinging-and connecting. Julie Ruggiero, the team’s No. 9 hitter, started the comeback with a triple, but was thrown out trying to score when Duerksen fielded a grounder hit by Karas Fairchild and threw home.
The Vikings were unrelenting, though. After Tasha Dauer reached on a error by second baseman Streeter, Mindy Gustus followed with a single. Cleanup hitter Lindsy Edwards then drove home the tying and winning runs with a solid single to center.
For the game, Hillsboro picked up five hits against McGaughey, while Smoky Valley finished with eight against Diener (0-3).
Funk started Game 2 with a bang, belting an inside-the-park home run in her leadoff role.
Hillsboro bumped the lead to 2-0 in the third when Funk singled and then scored on an error.
The Vikings scored twice off freshman Laura Lindsay in the bottom of the inning. After she hit Catrina Rawson with a pitch, Gustus drove her teammate in two strikeouts later with a single. Gustus then stole third and scored on an error.
Both teams scored a single run in the fifth. Hillsboro got on the board when Danielle Goossen singled and later scored on an error by the Viking catcher.
Smoky countered with a double by Rawson, who scored two outs and one error later on a single by Sherwood.
The Trojans took a critical two-run lead in the top of the seventh.
Leadoff hitter Heather Stepanek walked, but was forced at second on a grounder by Funk.
After Goossen singled, Funk and she scored after a wild throw to first on a ball hit by Sara Hamm.
Now down by two runs, Smoky rose to the challenge once more. Gustus reached on error to lead off, but was forced out on a ball hit by Sherwood.
The Vikings loaded the bases with consecutive singles by Edwards and Weldy. One strikeout later, Ruggiero pulled a Lindsay fastball deep and near the left-field foul line.
By the time leftfielder Diener ran down the ball and threw it back in, all four runners had scored.
Lindsay (0-3) finished with an nine-hitter. She struck out five Vikings and walked none.
Funk and Goossen combined for four of Hillsboro’s six hits and scored all five runs.
The Trojans managed 12 hits on the day, and Long said she was pleased with her team’s ability to get the bat on the ball.
“This is probably the best-hitting team we’ve had in the six years (of the program),” she said.
Although the Trojans still committed eight errors against Smoky Valley, Long said they’re fielding a lot more balls this season with the graduation of four-year pitching star Holly Lindsay.
“That’s not a put-down of our current pitchers,” Long said, adding that Diener and Laura Lindsay are young and in their first year of varsity ball. “It’s just the way it is.
“We were much more focused today and I thought for the most part we did a great job in the field,” she said.
Coming-The Trojans (2-6) were scheduled to take on Nickerson Tuesday. Next Tuesday they travel to Moundridge for a doubleheader that will begin at 4:30 p.m.