Hillsboro?s Taylor Nikkel slides safely into third base after the relay throw to third glances off her helmet during the first inning of the championship game with Council Grove. Nikkel went on to score the first run of the game.
Perhaps the gods of softball finally smiled upon the Hillsboro Trojans.
Coming into Wednesday?s regional final at Marion with a frustrating 0-5 title-game record through 11 seasons of softball, chances looked slim that this year?s freshmen-dominated team would change those fortunes against Council Grove?s senior-laden, top-seeded squad.
So, when the Braves brandished a 5-1 lead through five innings, Trojan fans could be forgiven for having initial thoughts about next season.
Apparently, the Trojan players had no such thoughts. In a dramatic turnaround that defied logic, seven Trojans crossed the plate in the top of the sixth. Hillsboro was ahead 9-5 and well on the way to securing its first-ever state tournament berth in program history.
It wasn?t just the scope of the rally. It was how it transpired.
Two Trojan hits. Six Council Grove errors.
That kind of craziness in a regional final is rare. Was it the spunk of a young squad blissfully unaware of its limitations, or something more…other-worldly?
?They came back on Smoky Valley, they gave Hal?stead a great scare this year?I don?t think they ever think they?re out of it,? coach Stephanie Sinclair said of her team. ?That?s something special those kids have.?
Tara Hein?richs started the improbable rally by reaching first base on an error by the Braves? third baseman. Taylor Nikkel and Courtney Weber reached on errors at shortstop and second to load the bases.
Bri Loewen?s ground ball forced out pinch-runner Jessica Elliott at home plate. But an error in right field on a ball hit by Franny Gottsch brought Nikkel home for the first run of the inning.
Steph Sanders followed with a ground-ball single up the middle to score Weber, then Loewen scored on an error at second on a ball hit by Amy Bartel.
Gottsch scored the fourth and go-ahead run on a third error by the second baseman on a ball hit by pinch-hitter Aubrey Meier.
Krista Reimer then delivered a bases-loaded double to left field that chased home Sanders, Bartel and Meier, putting Hills?boro ahead 9-5.
Successive ground outs finally ended Council Grove?s nightmare.
Weber, who came into pitch in relief of Gottsch in the bottom of the fourth, kept the Braves scoreless over the last two innings on three hits to pick up the victory.
?Courtney came in and probably threw the best she?s ever thrown,? Sinclair said. ?Her key is to keep throwing hard and not let up. That?s exactly what she did. And the defensive back her up good.?
Hillsboro had taken a 1-0 lead in the opening inning. Nikkel and Weber started the game with back-to-back singles. After a fly out, Gottsch reached on a fielder?s choice, loading the bases. When the Braves? right fielder couldn?t hang on to Sanders? pop fly near the right-field line, Nikkel was able to score.
But Council Grove came right back against Gottsch in the bottom of the inning. A combination of three singles and two Trojan errors led to a four-run surge. The Braves pushed the lead to 5-1 in the third inning on a walk followed by a double to deep center.
Hillsboro crept to 5-2 in the fifth when Loewen led off with a single, Gottsch dropped a bloop single behind first base and Sanders stroked a ground-ball out that scored Loewen.
The Trojans? regional championship was a sweet reward for a young team that wasn?t expected to accomplish a lot this season with a starting lineup of six freshmen, a sophomore and two juniors.
?Nothing surprises me now with these kids,? Sinclair said. ?I don?t think they surprise their parents, even. It?s just something. They have softball in their blood and in their hearts.
?I?m just really proud of these kids.?
Coming?The Trojans (13-10) will make their first-ever appearance in the state tournament as the No. 8 seed and will face the undefeated and highly touted No. 1 seed, Thomas More Prep, at 5 p.m. Friday at the Twin Oaks Complex (Field A) in Manhattan.
If the Trojans get past TMP, they would play the winner of No. 4 Osage City (18-3) and No. 5 Silver Lake (18-4) at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The third-place game would be played at noon Saturday (Field B) and the championship game would be played at 1 p.m. (Field A).
On the other half of the bracket, No. 2 Halstead (22-1) will square off against No. 7 Frontenac (14-7), and No. 3 Medicine Lodge (21-2) will take on No. 6 Rock Creek (17-6).