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Little League Softball: Rowan 14U team heads to World Series

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SALISBURY — The Rowan Little League 14-under softball team needed 21 outs to win the Southeastern Regional and go to the World Series.
They found that elusive 21st out with a creative version of the hidden-ball trick.
Manager Johnny Meadows explained that they call the play “Hollywood.” Maybe it’s something that’s only supposed to work in cheesy movies, but Rowan’s Aubrey Tuell proved to be as good an actress as she is a pitcher. Rowan pulled it off and beat Richmond Little League, the Virginia champs, 2-0, in a winner-take-all game for the regional title.
Rowan went 3-0 in the event played on its home field at Salisbury Community Park.
It was the top of the seventh on a steamy Sunday afternoon, with the heat index soaring over 100, and with Rowan clinging to a precarious, two-run lead. Virginia’s Grace Minor had singled with one out and had moved up a base on a bunt as Rowan got the second out of the inning at first. Coming to the plate was cleanup hitter Riley Baughan, Virginia’s slugger. The team’s other power hitter, Ashley Perrey, waited on deck.
Meadows ambled to the circle for a conversation with Tuell. Jentri Meadows, his daughter and Rowan’s catcher, joined him, and then he summoned the rest of the infield for a chat.
There was speculation in the bleachers that Rowan would intentionally walk Baughan, who had crushed balls in her first two at-bats, but Meadows wasn’t about to put the tying run on base on purpose. Instead the long conversation was to prepare for the hidden-ball trick.
“We’d practiced the play a couple of times,” Tuell said. “But please don’t say exactly how we did it. We might need to do it again in the World Series.”
Like any good pitcher, Tuell is thinking ahead.
It takes creativity to work a hidden-ball trick in a sport where runners aren’t allowed to take leads, but Tuell and Rowan’s infielders have bright futures as thespians. They were selling that the ball had gotten away from them, and they found a buyer. And then it was time to execute a rundown and celebrate.
“I’ve learned a lot about hidden-ball tricks from Monte Sherrill (Pfeiffer) and Brian Hightower (East Rowan),” Meadows said. “This is the fourth time I’ve tried this play, and it’s worked three times. You don’t try it unless you really need it, and I felt like, in that situation, we needed it. That girl they had at the plate can hit it out of the ballpark.”
Baughan also is a strong lefty pitcher and struck out eight Rowan hitters. She kept her team in the game.
Rowan also helped keep it close by making four mistakes on the basepaths, losing two runners at the plate who tried to score on wild pitches. Rowan had a runner at second base with no outs in the second but was called out for leaving the base early. Rowan also lined into a double play in the sixth when Meadows had signaled for a squeeze play.
Rowan was able to overcome those baserunning follies because Tuell pitched a smart four-hitter and struck out seven and because her teammates played flawless defense. Meadows threw out a base-stealer. Left fielder Lauren Coughenour and right fielder Rylie Warren made wonderful catches.
Coughenour made a diving catch in the second inning that Coach Meadows called a momentum-changer after Rowan had failed to score in the bottom of the first.
“I got itchy after I caught that ball,” Coughenour said with a laugh. “I was down in the grass and the bugs were biting me, but I knew I had to catch it. I wanted to go to the World Series.”
Warren made a sensational catch in all three of Rowan’s regional games, and the one she made in the fifth inning on Sunday was the best of all. Baughan had started the fifth by smashing a ball off the base of the fence, but center fielder D’Nahjah Harrell had hustled after it and held her to a single. Perrey then sent a long drive soaring down the right-field line. Twisting and sprinting at the same time, Warren caught the ball over her shoulder on the run. After that snag, she had an easy double play. Baughan was running, certain that the ball would fall for extra bases.
“I wasn’t surprised I had to go after it,” Warren said. “That girl is a good hitter, and she’d made me run before.”
Rowan’s offense was basically third baseman Lucia Barbon. It was getting tense in a scoreless game and the pressure was mounting on Rowan in the fourth when Barbon whacked a solid, one-out double. She advanced to third on a passed ball and charged home on another one.
“We’ve got faster baserunners than Barbon, but she might be the best one,” Coach Meadows said. “She got a great jump off third base and scored easily.”
Rowan didn’t score again until the sixth. That’s when leadoff batter Olivia Marshall used her wheels to beat out a routine groundball to shortstop. After a passed ball and a wild pitch moved Marshall to third, Barbon drove a pitch hard to center field for a sacrifice fly and a big insurance run.
“It wasn’t easy to hit today because the pitcher threw hard and she was all over the place, lots of high pitches and lots of low pitches,” Barbon said. “I moved up in the lineup today (from sixth to third), but my job was the same — get on base for my teammates or drive them in if I had a chance.”
Rowan beat Virginia, 6-1, on Saturday in a tough, competitive game, but Virginia got another shot at Rowan in Sunday’s title game for all the marbles by eliminating Florida, 6-3, on Sunday morning in the losers bracket final.
Virginia and Florida were the second and third best teams in the field. Rowan didn’t face any of the weaker clubs.
Rowan Little League placed third in the regional last season in its debut in 14U softball. Some of the veterans remembered falling short, and that made Sunday’s smiles, Gatorade baths and victory pizza that much better.
“We didn’t win this regional last year, so we really wanted to get it done this time,” Rowan’s Ally Young said. “Especially for the returners, this is very exciting.”
Dressed in their bright red Rowan shirts and bearing gifts for less fortunate foreign teams, the team will fly out of Charlotte early Saturday morning, first to Houston, and then on to Seattle. The Junior League World Series will be held in Kirkland, Wash., from July 31 to Aug. 8.
Rowan will be playing a team from the Philippines, the Asia-Pacific champs, in the first round on July 31. So far, teams from Canada, Mexico, California and the Czech Republic also have punched tickets for the 10-team World Series.

Virginia 000 000 0 — 0 4 0
Rowan Co. 000 101 x — 2 3 0
W — Aubrey Tuell. L — Rilee Baughan.
Leading hitters — Virginia: Savannah Goodman 2-for-3. Rowan: Lucia Barbon 1-for-2, 1 run, 1 RBI. Olivia Marshall 1-for-2, 1 run. D’Nahjah Harrell 1-for-2, double.

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