By Cassandra Swartz:
Behind a stellar showing in the circle by freshman pitcher Lily Neal, Union County cemented its place in the Class 1A-District 5 championship game. An 8-2 victory over Hamilton County sends theTigers to the title game against Hilliard, who upset Madison County earlier in the day.
“I’m proud we survived, and I’m proud we’re going to be there [in the championship game],” said Tigers head coach James Godwin.
The Tigers got off to a strong start, scoring half of their runs in the first inning. Sophomore standout Leah Clark led off with a stand-up triple before subsequently racing home on a ball that snuck past the catcher to grab the lead.
Two walks and a hit-batter loaded the bases, still with no outs. Randa Goodwin delivered with a single that scored Tamia Young to double the lead. Bases loaded again, McKenzie Clemons laced a single that drove Reah Jones and Starla Vaughn home to make it 4-0.
After two strikeouts in each of the first two innings, Neal struck out the side in order in the top of the third to bring her total at that point in the game to seven. The Tigers had a quiet second and third innings, only putting one runner on via a walk. The Trojans started to battle back in the fourth, cracking their first hits off of Neal. Sarah Welch led off with a double, and Rachel Fry followed up with a single.
A sacrifice grounder put both runners in scoring position, and Welch crossed the plate on a wild pitch for the first Trojan run of the night. A walk to Denyla Cherry put runners on the corners with one out. Cherry broke for second, and, on the unsuccessful attempt to catch her stealing, Fry raced home to make it 4-2.
A strikeout and a nice play in foul territory stopped Hamilton County from closing the gap any further. Union County responded by building its lead back up and then some in the home half of the fourth, all with two outs.
Clark stole second and then made it all the way home when the throw to second sailed deep into the outfield. A Young single, a Jones walk and a pair of steals put runners in scoring position for Vaughn who popped up into shallow center for what looked to be the final out of the inning. However, the ball was dropped, and the error allowed both runners to score, making it 7-2.
Still looking for more, the Tigers loaded the bases with no outs in the fifth. They were able to add one additional insurance run off a sac fly by Clark, which scored Maggie Thomas. The Trojans got out of the situation by throwing a runner out at the plate and inducing a groundout. In the sixth, the Trojans put two on but left them stranded as Neal notched two more strikeouts.
The Tigers loaded the bases again but couldn’t bring anyone home to extend the lead. Down to their final three outs, the Trojans tried to rally. A walk and a single put two runners on base with two outs, but a fly-out to deep center ended the game.
Neal tossed a complete game, allowing only three hits and striking out 10 Hamilton County batters. Her freshman inexperience combined with her great performance has left her with mixed feelings heading into the title game. “I’m definitely 50% nervous, 50% confident,” she said.
“I hope that I can be 100% confident tomorrow.” On the offensive side of the ball, Young chipped in two singles, two walks, two steals and two runs. “It felt pretty good to help the team out and score,” she said. “We worked really hard to be here.”
“I think we could have played better," Godwin said. "But, a win’s a win at this point."