(Cover photo credit: Sam Draut)
For the first five innings of the Seventh Region championship game, seventh-ranked Male played like the team head coach Josh Bloomer had worked throughout the season to get away from. Eastern led Male 4-0 through those five innings, but the Bulldogs scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and won 5-4 to secure their fourth consecutive trip to the 2016 Worth/KHSAA State Softball Tournament.
With runners on first and third with two outs, Male’s Jenna Howell hit a two-run triple to left center field that sent the tying and go-ahead run across the plate. The sophomore started at the flex position and played left field, but didn’t have her first at-bat until the sixth-inning rally.
“I was trying to stay lose and calm myself down,” Howell said. “Stay in the moment and have fun out there.”
Bloomer told Howell to take the first pitch, and it helped to get her timing down. He decided to send her to the plate because she hits low balls well, a frequent placement for Eastern pitcher Olivia Leet.
“I’m so happy for her,” Bloomer said. “She is the epitome of what you want as a player. Every time she comes to practice with a great practice. She got to experience the success she has earned.”
Howell’s game-clinching hit was preceded by manufactured runs from the top of Male’s order. Morgan Zuege singled to begin the inning and Olivia Suski reached base with one out. Alyssa Case was intentionally walked to load the bases for Madison McCoy. With two outs, McCoy was hit by a pitch to plate Male’s first run. Then, pinch-hitter Megan Cunningham hit a bloop single to shallow right field that scored two runs to cut the deficit to one.
“I kept telling them we don’t need to score four, we need to score one,” Bloomer said. “They didn’t really want to listen to me, they decided to get five.”
After Male’s five-run inning, Peyton Mills and Alana Fullen reached base to open the top of the seventh inning, but Eastern couldn’t capitalize with the leadoff runners. Suski struck out Leet for the first out and Kassidy Fugate made a sliding catch in right field for the second out. Tedi Nunn grounded out to shortstop to end the game.
The final two innings were stark contrasts to the opening frames for Eastern. Fullen scored in the first inning and Nunn added an RBI single to give the Eagles a 2-0 lead. Nunn hit an RBI double off the wall and Eastern led 4-0 after three innings.
“We played good, we talked about coming out fast and we did,” Eastern head coach Dean Taylor said. “We put them back on their heels for a little bit.”
Suski, Male’s pitcher, settled in after the rocky started to win her third complete-game in the Seventh Region tournament. Howell believed Suski may have been tired, but was able “to keep her energy up and focus.”
“Suski wasn’t her best, but once we got through those first couple of innings, I think nerves got us,” Bloomer said.
Male’s comeback overshadowed a strong performance by Leet, Eastern’s starting pitcher. Bloomer said her performance was “masterful” and she kept Bulldog hitters off-balance for most of the night.
“Her effort was outstanding,” Taylor said.
With the win, Male takes its fourth-straight trip to Lexington for the KHSAA State tournament and has reeled off 12 consecutive wins in Seventh Region Tournament play.