Regular season success goes out the window whenever the playoffs start.
The Chardon Hilltoppers softball team learned that the hard way, losing 10-8 to North Canton Hoover in the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division I Northeast 3 sectional championship last Wednesday evening at James. G. Shannon Field.
“We knew it was going to be a hard fought game,” said Coach Stewart Landies. “I am so proud of these kids with the way they battled. We had a couple of unfortunate things happen at the end of the year. They battled right through it. This was easily the best team I have ever coached.”
The Hilltoppers (20-5, 10-1) entered the postseason after one of the most successful regular seasons in school history, winning their second Western Reserve Conference banner in three seasons and posting 20 wins for the first time in the program’s history.
That earned Chardon the third seed in its district and gained home field advantage for the sectional championship, setting up a rematch against the Vikings, the same team that ousted them from the Division I district semifinal last season.
According to the sixth-year coach, it was a rematch the Hilltoppers wanted.
“The girls were up for it,” said Landies. “They were pumped and came to play on Thursday. It is a great group of kids and they battled the whole time.”
The game was a scoreless tie through the first two innings but senior hurler Sydney Murray’s control dipped drastically in the top of the third, issuing a pair of walks to sophomore shortstop Lauren Moore and sophomore catcher Sienna Koosh and the Vikings loaded the bases on a single by junior second baseman Delaney Shannon.
Senior first baseman Makayla Ball put North Canton Hoover ahead 2-0, hitting a two-run single.
Murray, a Lake Erie College commit, could not find the strike zone, loading the bases again on a walk to junior third baseman Sadie Carroll.
The Hilltoppers’ senior right-handed hurler threw three consecutive wild pitches and Hoover pushed its lead to 4-0.
That forced Landies to pull Murray, with one out in the third and a runner on third base and brought senior center fielder/pitcher Amy O’Brien on in relief.
“Sydney has struggled with her control this year so it has been a problem,” acknowledged Landies. “It is what it is. It was a big stage but Amy just jumped right in there and did not miss a step.”
Although Murray was Chardon’s starting pitcher in last year’s playoffs, she yielded her starting pitching role to junior Jenna Hendricks at the beginning of the year.
Hendricks suffered an injury during the middle of the season and Murray stepped back into the starting role backed by O’Brien.
“Jenna was a horse,” Landies said. “She started the season so well and we obviously missed her but it is what it is and we had to pick it back up. Sydney and Amy are great pitchers and we had their backs.”
Sophomore pitcher Ella Letosky plated another run on a sacrifice fly, increasing the Vikings’ lead to 5-0.
The Hilltoppers answered with four runs in the bottom half of the third, starting with 3-run bases-loaded double by senior first baseman Madison Zombory and Murray drove in Zombory on a deep fly that senior right fielder Lauryn Anderson lost in the sun, trimming Hoover’s lead to only one run.
“That is huge,” Landies said of his team’s resiliency. “That is this team. That is the essence of this team.”
O’Brien also battled her command in the top of the fourth, hitting Moore with a pitch to lead off the inning and surrendering an opposite-field single to Koosh.
Shannon stroked a 2-run single, pushing North Canton Hoover’s lead back to 7-4 and Ball delivered another big hit, drilling a two-run home run, pushing the lead to 9-4.
Senior Makalya Bower added another run, blooping a RBI-single down the left field line, giving Hoover a six-run cushion.
The Hilltoppers responded again, scoring three runs in the bottom half of the fourth.
O’Brien singled home a run, hitting a fly ball, followed by a RBI-single by Zombory and Murray hit a sacrifice fly, cutting the Vikings’ lead to 10-7.
After the teams combined to score 17 runs in two innings, only one more run was scored in the next three frames.
Although she allowed five earned runs in her first 1 2/3 inning of relief, O’Brien settled in, allowing zero runs, one hit and striking out two batters in the final three innings, giving Chardon a chance to mount a comeback.
Aside from a RBI-single by Murray in the bottom of the sixth, cutting the lead to 10-8, the Hilltoppers could not overtake North Canton Hoover, resulting in an abrupt end to the season.
“We just gave up too many walks,” Landies said. “Too many hit batters, wild pitches and you just cannot do that. A couple of mistakes on defense and we just could not do it against a team like North Canton Hoover.”
After graduating no players from the 2022 squad, Chardon will say goodbye to six seniors in Murray, Zombory, O’Brien, left fielder Sidney Nagaj, right fielder Sarah Sutton and second baseman Grace Legan.
“We had six seniors and they all played last year so we had them for two years and they meant everything,” Landies said. “They changed the culture of the program.”
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