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Little League softball 16U: Rowan falls in SE Regional

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Manager Brandon Piper hugged Rowan Little League players one by one as they filed away from the keep-your-heads-up postgame chat that followed a draining 5-4 setback to Florida.

Some stoically held back tears on Sunday afternoon at Salisbury Community Park, because these are 16U girls well-schooled in the fickle nature of softball, but others allowed moisture to roll out of red eyes. Rowan’s second loss, an elimination defeat in the Southeast Regional on its home field, was emotional. On a heartbreak scale of 1 to 10, this one registered a 9.9.

On a steamy afternoon that featured plenty of hard-hit balls by both teams, Rowan’s day was ruined by a ball that wasn’t. In the top of the sixth, Florida’s Melanie Almanza punched a bloop over the head of  Rowan first baseman Abbey Nixon, and it dropped to the ground in front of lunging second baseman Brooke Piper. That crazy little pop didn’t even make it past the infield dirt, but it didn’t stay in the air long, and it was in a perfectly bad spot for Rowan — right down the line. The bases were loaded and everyone was sprinting hard with two outs, so it was a merry-go-round of activity. Two desperate, hurried throws later, and Florida had three runs and suddenly had turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead.

“That play — it was painful to watch,” said Rowan pitcher Kendall Robinson, a rising freshman at Lake Norman High who went the distance in the circle. “We hit so many balls hard that were outs, and then they got three runs off of one infield hit.”

Rowan barreled three hard outs. Tate Barger couldn’t have hit the ball any harder leading off the third inning, but Florida left fielder Yanni David made one of the grabs of the decade, with a fully extended dive toward the line. Rowan scored three runs in that inning and might have plated several more had David not made that remarkable catch.

Piper smoked a bullet at the shortstop in the fifth with a runner at second base. Cailynn Winford stung one right at the third baseman with a runner in scoring position in the bottom of the sixth. And so it went.

“That’s how it goes sometimes in softball,” Coach Piper said. “We just didn’t get the breaks today. I thought they missed a call at first base in the first inning that cost us a run, and it just never went our way. But the girls fought down to the last out, and Kendall did all she could have. She pitched a fantastic game.”

That controversial play at first base in the top of the first was a bang-bang job on a routine-looking, two-out bouncer to short by Florida cleanup hitter Dee Bent. Rowan shortstop Kary Hales and Nixon did everything right, but Bent was quick down the line, the visitors got the call, and a runner scored from third base.

Rowan overcame that adversity with a two-out rally in the bottom of the third, stringing together five consecutive, two-out hits. Claire Long and Hales got soft singles in front of well-stroked doubles by Piper and Ellen Yang. Then Nixon singled to knock out Florida starting pitcher Jamie Jarvis, but a strong throw from the outfield prevented Yang from scoring from second base, and Rowan had to settle for a 3-1 lead.

For a while, it looked like three runs might be enough for Robinson. She got assistance in the fourth when Rowan center fielder Ellie Wilhelm gunned down a runner at the plate for the third out. Then Robinson handled the fifth in 1-2-3 fashion. Hales snagged a wicked line drive to end that inning.

Robinson did the bulk of the pitching for Rowan in a wild 9-8 win in extra innings against Florida on Friday, the first day of the tournament. She learned from it.

“I knew which girls wanted to pull the ball and which ones were looking backside,” Robinson said. “I trusted my coaches and our defense, and we were able to pitch to them better than we did the first time. I was hitting my spots most of the time.”

The fateful top of the sixth started with a base hit and was followed by Florida’s third sacrifice bunt of the game (Rowan handled all three bunts perfectly) and a walk. Then Emma Hayman ripped a violent single past Hales to cut Rowan’s lead to 3-2. Robinson got the second out on a ground ball to Hales before a semi-intentional walk to Florida’s scary lead-off batter Natalie Sibert filled the bases.

The next batter was Almanza. Her game-changing poke gave Florida a 5-3 lead.

Rowan got one run back in the bottom of the sixth when Nixon scored on Barger’s ground out to the right side.

When Robinson got Florida out 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh, that one-run deficit didn’t look daunting with the strong top of the lineup coming up for Rowan.

Things looked even better when Long, a  rising sophomore at South Iredell, led off the seventh with a clean single, her third hit of the day.

Hales was next. Normally, that’s a bunting situation — Rowan obviously needed to get the tying run to second base — but Hales,  a rising junior at Carson, hits the ball harder and more consistently than anyone on the team. So she wasn’t asked to bunt. It wasn’t a tough decision. It just didn’t work out.

“We’d already talked it over as a coaching staff,” Coach Piper said. “If Claire got on base, we weren’t going to bunt Kary. You don’t bunt with Kary Hales. Kary puts the ball in play and hits it hard 95 percent of the time.”

Hales took two strikes, and then took a chopping swing. She made solid contact, but the ball headed to the worst possible place. Bent,  Florida’s slick shortstop, was shaded up the middle and gloved the ball near second base. She stepped on the bag and fired to first for a double play. Hales made a headlong dive into first, but she was out — literally by a nose — and Rowan was down to its final out.

Piper smacked a single up the middle to keep hope alive temporarily, but when Yang bounced an off-speed pitch to a rocket-armed third baseman, it was over, and Florida celebrated.

•••

NOTES: Florida was playing the second of its three games on Sunday when the girls from the Cape Coral/Fort Myers area topped Rowan. Florida routed Virginia Sunday morning 11-1 in an elimination game. After holding off Rowan, Florida lost 3-1 to Florence, S.C., in Sunday’s regional championship game. The South Carolina girls, who were 4-0 in the tournament and handed Rowan a loss late Saturday night, will represent the Southeast Region in the World Series in Delaware. … Rowan turned in some sharp defense on Sunday. Catcher Bentli Meadows threw out a base stealer in the first inning. In the second inning, Rowan turned a sacrifice bunt into a double play when an aggressive runner rounded second base too far. … Florida had nine hits, getting one from every spot in the lineup.

Florida    100  004  0   — 5  9   4

Rowan    003   001  0  — 4   10  3

W —  Carley David. L — Robinson.

HR — None.

Leading hitters — Rowan: Long 3-for-4; Hales 2-for-4; Piper 2-for-4, RBI.

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