ELKTON — As Stuarts Draft coach Robbie Tillman stood in right field surrounded by his four seniors with tears in his eyes, a mob of teammates jumping and screaming around East Rockingham freshman Sarah Smith drifted from home plate and into the ERHS dugout.
All the reasons the Cougars players were drowning in sorrow Thursday were why the Eagles were relishing their own moment on the opposite end of the field.
“We all put it together for our seniors,” Smith said. “We didn’t want them to have their last game, last chance at it.”
On a night where both teams said they were playing to extend the careers of the players in their final season with each program, it was an undersized first-year left fielder making the game’s biggest play.
Smith’s hard-hit single down the third-base line went between the legs of Draft third baseman Alexis Bridge and into left field to bring home Courtney Shifflett and give third-seeded East Rockingham a thrilling 5-4 walk-off win over the sixth-seeded Cougars in the Shenandoah District softball quarterfinals in Elkton.
“Our goal to start the season was to make it to the regional tournament and we guaranteed that tonight,” ERHS coach Ronnie Dovel said. “It’s big. Any team in this district can beat you on any given night and tonight was proof.”
The win not only clinched the Eagles a spot in the Region 2B tournament, but earned them a trip to the district semifinals — a spot they didn’t reach last year after being upset by Riverheads in the first round of the tournament — where they’ll take on second-seeded Buffalo Gap on Wednesday in Swoope. The Bison defeated Luray 12-0 in another district quarterfinal game Thursday.
It was the ninth one-run game of the season for East Rock, but served as a much-needed win after going 3-3 over the final six games of the regular season following an eight-game winning streak that had them in first place in the district at one point.
“It’s got to be a big confidence booster, but honestly we’ve been playing in games like this all year,” Dovel said. “Any night in this district, you can be beat. Tonight was almost our night.”
The contest showcased just how close the two teams were with each team grabbing momentum at various points throughout the game, starting with a three-run third inning from the Cougars that included a two-run inside-the-park homer from Emma Cyr.
It didn’t take long for the Eagles to respond, however, getting three runs of their own in the bottom of that frame off an RBI single from Brooke Hensley and a pair of wild pitches that allowed East Rock to send two more runners home and even it at 3-3.
“If we would have made a couple more routine plays,” Tillman said. “It was just a couple of small things. If we do those routine plays, it’s a different ball game.”
It was Hensley again coming up big in the fourth — she finished 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs — when she ripped a single into center to score Jessica McDonaldson and give the Eagles a 4-3 lead.
“It’s very important for us to be able to do that,” Hensley said. “It just shows how well we can play and grab momentum in certain parts of the game and big parts of the game. We can all get hits in a row and get those RBIs that we need.”
In the circle, McDonaldson got better as the game went along, controlling her pitches and handling the strong bats of a Draft lineup that had put up 46 runs combined in the previous two games.
“Jess has done so good for us this year,” Hensley said. “She battles back. She may have three balls, but you can bet she’s going to come back at you with a strike.”
It wasn’t until the sixth when Mikayla Dix’s RBI single scored Hannah Kincheloe to even things up at 4-4 that McDonaldson ran into more trouble.
She responded, however, with a groundout to end the inning and then got a strikeout and a double play in the seventh to set up the late-game heroics from Smith.
“They hit the ball hard,” Dovel said. “They probably hit the ball harder than we did tonight, but Jess hit her spots well. That was the game plan going in. We couldn’t leave nothing down the middle. We had to hit our spots and Jess did that. She did a good job tonight.”
Draft scored double-digit runs in nine games this season and had won three of their last four entering the district tournament.
“The last four or five games, we have played exceptional,” Tillman said. “I don’t know what the turnaround was other than we started working on our hitting a lot. It seemed like it paid off. Until tonight, we’ve been scoring a lot of runs. We were right there and I think we made enough noise. We’re a No. 6 seed and we hung with a No. 3 seed.”
The game had all the makings of an extra-innings battle, but after McDonaldson got the double play in the top of the seventh, the East Rock dugout exploded in excitement and momentum shifted toward the Eagles.
In the bottom of the frame, Shifflett led off with a deep double off the left-field fence and in the ensuing at-bat, Smith’s hard-hit grounder went into left to bring home the winning run.
“I knew I had to get a hit,” Smith said. “[The pitch] was more inside than down the middle. I got a little nervous. I knew it went fair because it went through her legs. It’s hard not to be excited. Coming back from two strikeouts to getting that hit felt really good.”
Smith finished 2-for-4 with an RBI for the Eagles (16-5) while McDonaldson was 2-for-2 and also pitched a complete game, giving up four runs on nine hits and five walks while striking out five. For the Cougars (9-12), Cyr was 2-for-4 with a double, a homer and two RBIs while Bridge was 2-for-4 and five other players had one hit apiece.
The win sets up a third meeting between East Rockingham and Buffalo Gap after the Bison won both regular-season contests.
“They beat us twice this year and they have the best pitcher in the district,” Dovel said. “They’re tough and it’s going to be a challenge. You know what though? Trying to beat somebody three times in a season is tough, too. We’ll see what happens.”
When Tillman looked at who was remaining in the district tournament, he said it’s going to be a “dogfight.”
Much like Dovel, he said he thought the Shenandoah District was among the best in the state.
“That’s one thing I will say,” Tillman said. “You can see 1-7 that it is unreal. I think we have the toughest district of anybody. I think if we could’ve got through this, we could’ve made a run. Page is tough, but so is Buffalo Gap and East Rock. It’s going to be good.”
After another one-run game — the Eagles are 6-3 in such contests — both Hensley and Smith said it can be stressful at times, but said the team remains poised throughout.
“We can always fight back no matter what,” Hensley said. “We may be down, but we have the heart to come back and win it. We’re always pumping each other up and doing whatever we can to get the win.”
The same reason it was stressful for the East Rock players was the same reason the heartbreak was so much worse for Tillman and the Cougars.
“Every year with the seniors, it’s tough,” Tillman said. “They’re good kids. You hate to see them go. Like that especially.”
That poise and that calm demeanor that the Eagles showcased, Hensley said, is a credit to the team’s three seniors — Shifflett, Briana Roach and Autumn Bailey — and also why the celebration lasted a little longer.
It’s also why the East Rock will look to get a couple more wins before their season is up.
“Our goal this year was just to try and get as many wins as we can this year for our seniors,” Hensley said. “We know it’s their last year and we don’t want it to end. We’re playing for them every single game. That’s the truth.”
Stuarts Draft 003 001 0—4 9 1
East Rockingham 003 100 1—5 6 0
WP—McDonaldson. LP—Kincheloe. HR—Stuarts Draft: Cyr, one on, third.