HS softball: West Rowan ends tournament drought
West Rowan tops Mustangs for tournament title
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — The first post-game word out of winning West Rowan softball coach Jimmy Greene’s mouth after a 4-1 victory against East Rowan was echoed by the team’s senior shortstop Mary Sobataka.
Senior center fielder Hannah Pratt was feeling some “finally” as well. She spiked the ball into the ground with some emotion after catching the last out of Friday’s North Piedmont Conference Tournament championship game at West.
For all its success in recent seasons, West has struggled to win conference tournament championships. Hickory Ridge knocked out the Falcons in 2015, Cox Mill did the honors in 2016, and rival Carson took care of the Falcons back-to-back in two different leagues in 2017 and 2018.
West hadn’t won a championship game since it beat East Rowan for the 2014 South Piedmont Conference title. That was when Greene was a rookie head coach with the Falcons. Now he’s a six-year veteran. It’s been a while.
“That’s why I’m so happy for this group of seniors right now,” said Greene, who had water dumped on him by victorious Falcons. “We’ve got a great bunch of seniors that had never won a conference tournament. Now they have.”
It was a satisfying triumph for the top-seeded Falcons (20-3) because third-seeded East (13-9) made them earn it.
The three previous West vs. East games this season had been one-sided West wipeouts — 10-0, 10-0, 9-0. But not this one.
“West did a good job, but we played very well,” East coach Mike Waddell said. “This was a ballgame.”
Three close calls — two at the plate — went West’s way. If they had been ruled otherwise, East may have pulled off a stunner.
When East cleanup hitter/pitcher Haley Strange lifted a little popup up the first-base line with two on and one out in the top of the first, it didn’t appear to be a routine play for anyone. West pitcher Whitley Arnott dashed out of the circle and got to the ball right on the line, arriving at the same time as first baseman Reagan Haggas, but the ball caromed off her glove into foul territory. Both runners advanced a base, but to the surprise of many, the infield fly rule had been called and Strange was out.
After a walk to fill the bases, Arnott got a strikeout to the end the inning. East had missed its chance to jump on top.
West didn’t falter when it got a chance to score early. Walks to Kenadi Sproul and Sobataka started the bottom of the first. Taylor Walton, recovered from a rib injury and back in the lineup for the first time since April 16, smacked a high offering from Strange into center field to score a flying Sproul for a 1-0 lead.
“We had runners out there, so I had a job to do,” Walton said. “That pitch was high, but I’ve got confidence that if it’s anywhere close I can get a bat on it.”
That was the first of Walton’s three hits. She’s batting .551 for the season.
Reagan Haggas’ hard groundout to the right side got Sobataka home from third and the Falcons led 2-0. Two runs is almost always enough for Arnott.
West made it 3-0 in the bottom of the second when Sproul came through with a two-out RBI single.
In the third, Sobataka smashed a double into the left-field corner. Walton’s line single to left got her home — on another close play — for a 4-0 advantage.
Arnott sailed into the fifth with that 4-0 lead, but she’d had a scary day at school.
“I had a freak accident, jammed my wrist in a door,” Arnott said. “But it wasn’t too bad. I felt all right.”
Mac Misenheimer’s bunt single got the fifth started for East. Maddie Trexler, the hero of East’s semifinal win against Carson, sent a rocket whistling to the base of the wall in right-center. Misenheimer raced around the bases, but Pratt got to the ball quickly and hit Sobataka, the cut-off. Sobataka fired home, and Misenheimer was called out as she slid home.
East fans raised multiple objections, that West catcher Megyn Spicer had blocked the plate without the ball and that Spicer hadn’t held the ball on the tag. But the call stood, and it was the play of the game. Pratt’s throw and Sobataka’s throw both had to be perfect to have any chance and Spicer had caught the ball and applied the tag with a runner sliding into her, not an easy thing to do.
“I got a perfect bounce off the wall, and then we just had to make throws we work on,” Pratt said. “It was great teamwork on that play. We got it done.”
Having a runner thrown out at home with no outs was a devastating blow for the Mustangs, but it was hard to fault anyone. East desperately needed to show it could score a run against Arnott.
That play at home got even bigger when Mackenzie Sprinkle ripped one to the wall in left-center for a double. Trexler scored East’s first run of the season against West.
Arnott got the second out of the fifth on a strikeout. The third out was another rope. Kaitlyn Samples lashed a ball toward the right-center gap, but Pratt had her played perfectly. She barely had to move to record the final out of the inning.
“East was hitting balls hard, so we backed up a little bit,” Pratt said. “Whitley was pitching mostly away, so we were expecting their right-handed hitters to hit to right field. On that play, Whitley pitched away, and I was where I was supposed to be.”
Arnott dominated the sixth with two strikeouts. She walked two in the seventh, but Pratt snagged two more fly balls, including a pretty good shot by Ashlyn Fritz, and it was over.
Pratt is incredible out there,” Greene said. “She makes very difficult plays look easy.”
Added Arnott, “Whether I’m good or bad, our defense is always there. They always come through.”
Arnott hasn’t been bad all year. She struggled a bit, throwing 128 pitches. She walked six and allowed five hits, but she also registered 10 strikeouts.
“We hit a lot of balls hard,” Waddell said. “Unfortunately, most of them were right at them.”
Strange pitched a complete game for East, striking out one and walking three. She held a powerful West lineup to six hits, and East’s defense made some nice plays. Sprinkle threw out Sproul on a steal attempt, and that doesn’t happen much.
“These last two games against Carson and West, we’ve played hard and we’ve played as a team,” Trexler said. “These probably were our two best games of the season. That gives us a lot of confidence going into the playoffs.”
Waddell agreed the Mustangs are “playoff ready.”
So are the Falcons, who will have a chance to play a number of games at home.
It’s easy to argue conference tournaments don’t mean anything, but winning one provides more than a trophy. It provides priceless momentum going into the state playoffs, and the Falcons, with Arnott firing and Walton swinging, have a chance to make a serious run. The lineup is deep. The defense, anchored by Sobataka and Pratt, is terrific.
“We’ve got a lot of unique personalities on this team and we’ve got more good players than we can fit in the lineup,” Greene said. “But that’s a good problem to have. We’ve had a great year, a fun year.”
West has reached 20 wins for the first time since the 2006 season when the Falcons went 23-2.
East Rowan 000 010 0 — 1 5 2
West Rowan 211 000 x — 4 6 0
W — Arnott. L — Strange.
Leading hitters — East: Misenheimer 1-for-2; Sprinkle 1-for-3, RBI; Trexler 1-for-3; Teague 1-for-3. West: Walton 3-for-3, 2 RBIs; Sproul 1-for-2, RBI; Sobataka 1-for-2; Pratt 1-for-2.
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