An expanded and often inconsistent strike zone worked in favor of pitching during the Division I regional softball championship between Solon and Louisville on Saturday afternoon at the University of Akron.
While the Lady Comets (18-8) were chasing their program’s first state final-four berth, so too were the Ohio High School Softball Coaches Poll No. 4-ranked Louisville Lady Leopards (25-4).
But with neither team’s players knowing exactly when to swing their bats, the championship game came down to a pitcher’s duel between Solon senior Allie Bican and Louisville senior Sarah Cantley, who had thrown a perfect five-inning game with 11 stakeouts during a 13-0 regional semifinal win against Chardon three days earlier.
Both Bican and Cantley surrendered three hits apiece in the title game, but Louisville came out the 2-1 victor with runs scored off a wild pitch and an unearned sacrifice fly in the third inning.
“This was the furthest this program has made it in the history of the school,” Solon third-year head coach David Donaldson said. “So, we just told the girls, even though today kind of stings with the loss, we had an overall great season. We made a nice run.
“And, when you get into the tournament, you have to get lucky. You have to get some bounces. That’s just the way the game is played. There were a couple bounces today we didn’t get, and we were just a little late getting on pitches. Sarah (Cantley) pitched a great game.”
In the first inning, anything between the batter’s boxes was called a strike, but then zone tightened and expanded to leave batters guessing throughout the remainder of the game. The only thing consistent was the inconsistency for and against both teams.
When asked if he expected there to be more offense, coach Donaldson said he didn’t know how it would unfold.
“I just said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be able to play the game either way,” he said. “So, if it’s low-scoring, play low scoring. If it’s going to be a high-scoring game where we’re both hitting the ball, let’s just keep hitting the ball.
“But I’m proud of the girls, especially the seniors. We told them, yeah, they’re upset right now, but, when they look back, they’re going to say they had a great run at Solon. Their names are going to be remembered for a long time.”
In the top of the first inning, Solon senior two-hole hitter Kailee Grimm connected on a 1-1 pitch for a standup double to left field. But during senior Hallie Sutyak’s ensuing at-bat, Louisville senior catcher Kaycee Ollis caught Grimm cheating off the bag for the second out of the inning.
Sutyak went on to hit an infield single to third base, but then Louisville’s Cantley struck out Solon’s cleanup hitter to end the inning.
“That was a heck of a play by their catcher,” Donaldson said of the pickoff. “It surprised us. After that, I think it woke us up that, ‘Hey, we’re playing a good team.’ So, you have to be ready because that catcher likes to throw the ball. She’s got a great arm.”
Grimm also had the Lady Comets’ third hit of the game on a single in the sixth, to go two-of-three for the afternoon, but nothing came of it.
“Kailee Grimm is one of those kids that’s always practicing, always preparing and always mentally ready,” Donaldson said. “I’m not surprised that Kailee had a good game. She had a great second half of the season, came into her own zone, and she carries us for a few of these games.”
After Grimm and Sutyak both got hits in the first inning, Cantley went on to strike out the next seven Lady Comet batters she faced – three of them looking.
The count only got to two balls in one of those seven at-bats.
“We were getting a little frustrated at the plate,” Donaldson said. “So, we always talk about controlling the ‘controllables.’ You can’t control the crowd, the other team, the umpires. We just have to control to what we do and how we adjust to what’s happening. And we tried to make adjustments to what we were getting. We just made adjustments too late.
“I mean, we just didn’t know how to adjust to what she was pitching. For whatever reason, we were just a ball behind where we wanted to be. We spend a lot of time working on our contact points. Today, we just weren’t getting the contact point where we wanted it.”
With Solon’s Bican, Grimm and Sutyak all pitching varsity ball since their freshman season in 2016, the Lady Comet batters were well-equipped to take on Cantley’s rise ball, curveball and drop, Donaldson said.
In the early at-bats, the Solon girls chases a couple of those rises, but, after their first time around the order, they were disciplined in eliminating that pitch.
On defense, Bican goth through the first two innings facing the minimum – thanks to a two-three double play by Solon junior catcher Mia Cipriano on a Louisville bunt attempt – but Lady Leopard senior seven-hole batter Justina Sirohman led off the third with a bloop single to center, and then senior nine-hole batter Lexi Zavarelle got aboard on an error.
At the top of the order, Louisville junior Sydney McKeever battled through an eight-pitch plate appearance and drew a walk to load the bases and put Siroham on third.
On a wild pitch, Siroham took home for the 1-0 lead. Ollis then hit an RBI sacrifice fly to right field for the 2-0 lead. Both runs were unearned.
“They did a good job,” Donaldson said of the Lady Leopards taking advantage of their opportunities. “They were disciplined in the batter’s box. And, when we’re in the field, we talk about how you can’t give up free bases. So, all we could really do at that point was try to limit their momentum. We kept them to two runs, which gave us a chance.”
Bican went one-two-three in the fourth, and then allowed one single in the fifth and one single in the sixth, but stranded both runners at first base. Catcher Cirpiano finished the game with four defensive outs on Louisville pops.
Still without a run entering the top of the seventh, Bican drew a one-out walk from the five spot, and then junior pinch runner Rachel Passerallo scored all the way from first when senior Julianna Kontul put a hard grounder in play that Louisville’s second baseman McKeever muffed into right field for an error. Kontul advanced to second.
But Cantley forced another grounder to second during Solon’s next at-bat, and McKeever redeemed herself to put the game away, 2-1, for her Lady Leopards.
“You just never know,” Donaldson said of Kontul representing the game-tying run on second base in the final inning. “We always talk about one pitch at a time. It’s a long game. It’s always going to come down to the last pitch.
“So, yeah, Allie had a great at-bat taking the walk, Julianna had a nice ball in play to get us the run in, and then we were hoping Mia would get us another one. She got the ball in the middle of the field but just quite didn’t get it all to drive it past the second baseman. But I couldn’t be more proud. They fought to the last pitch and the last out, and that’s all you can ask the girls to do.”