COLUMBIANA - Throught the season, Western Reserve softball coach Laura Amero has used the analogy of climbing a ladder to emphasize the little improvements she wanted her team to make each day.
Facing their biggest game of the year Monday at Columbiana - with first place in the Inter-Tri County League lower tier on the line - the second-ranked Blue Devils put it all together at the right time, collecting 15 hits and getting a complete game from freshman Maddie Kreitzburg to beat the Clippers, 10-5, at Firestone Park.
"Ever since Columbiana joined the lower tier, we have been pointing to this game," junior Gabby Stubbs said. "We knew Columbiana would be our main competition for the league title. It was very exciting to finally have the game here, and it felt great to come out and play with the intesnity we did."
Western Reserve and Columbiana each entered with 12-0 league records. The win gives the Devils at least a share of the conference title, a title they have won outright all four years of Amero's tenure. The two teams will conclude the league schedule on Thursday at Western Reserve.
"It's nice to know we have a share of the title locked up," Amero said. "Tonight's win certainly puts us in a good position for the second game on Thursday, but we can't act like we have won anything yet. Columbiana is a good team and we know they are going to bring the intensity later in the week."
Early on, it looked as if it might be Columbiana's night. In the bottom of the first inning, Clipper third baseman Khylea Fullum came up and drilled a two-run homer to center field, giving Columbiana an early 2-0 lead. It could have been worse, as Navi Kauer and Holly Gottardt followed the blast by reaching on errors, but Kreitzburg got out of it, retirng Marissa St. George on a grounder back to the mound.
"The first inning didn't bother me too much," Kreitzberg said. "We have a good offense, and I knew there was plenty of game left to play. I was confident that if I settled in, our bats would come back."
The Western Reserve offense found its stride in the third inning against Columbiana starter Dakota DeAmicis. With one out, Gabby Stubbs tied it with a two-run double to the gap in left center. After DeAmicis retired Kreitzberg for the second out, freshman Jenny Stubbs gave the Devils the lead for good with a double to left. Each of them finished the game with three hits and two RBIs.
"Our offense did a great job of taking a level-headed approach tonight," Gabby Stubbs said. "We just tried not to do too much and let the bats do the work."
The Clippers threatened to take the lead back in the bottom of the third but missed a critical opportunity.
After Madison Roessler led off with a walk, Fullum stepped up for the second time and crushed another pitch to center. Nearly everyone in the park thought it was Fullum's second home run, but the ball hit off the top of the fence, resulting in a double, and moving Roessler to third.
"I have no idea how that ball stayed in, Columbiana coach Jerry Beltempo said. "It hit nearly as hard as her (Fullum's) home run, it just got caught up in the wind."
The Clippers were still in good shape , as Navi Kauer followed with a walk to load the bases with nobody out. However, Kreitzberg calmy worked out of trouble again. Gotthardt popped up, after which St. George and Madison Macklin each grounded back to the mound, ending the threat. The Clipper stranded a total of nine runners for the game.
"That was a huge turning point for us," Amero said. Based on the look I saw in my players eyes after that inning, I knew we were going to win the game."
The Devils stretched their lead in the fourth when Tory White singled with two outs and April Lude slammed a two-run homer to make it 5-2. After the Clippers got a run back in their half of the inning, Western Reserve responded with three runs in the fifth to stretch the lead to 8-3. With two outs and a runner on second Marley Oles and Brittany Lude each ripped RBI doubles down the line, followed by an RBI single by Sydney Miller.
"Giving up runs with two outs has absolutely killed us this year, and tonight was no different," Beltempo said. "We just did not execute well enough to get ourselves out of innings."
Western Reserve blew the game open in the sixth when Lude led off with her second home run of the game and Gabby Stubbs supplied an RBI single, making it 10-3.
"The great thing about our lineup is how deep it is from top to bottom,' Lude said. "Our number nine hitter Tory White doesn't get a lot of credit, but tonight she had three key hits and helped turn the lineup back around to the top. That just shows the one through nine approach we have."
"Top to bottom, the were probably the best lineup we faced this year," Beltempo said. "Other teams have had a few good hitters, but they had six or seven that we had to be careful with."
Both teams will open sectional play today before meeting up again on Thursday for the rematch. Western Reserve will host Leetonia, while Columbiana will host Lisbon in setional play.
"I told the team we have to refocus," Beltempo said. "There are still a lot of big games left. We didn't play well tonight, but we are very capable of putting together some wins the rest of the week."
"I like the way we are playing right now," Amero said. "All year long, we have been building for this week. And it seems like we are starting to peak at just the right time."
CO: 2-0-0-1-0-2-0- 5- 8-0
WR-Maddie Kreitzberg, wp, (7IP, 2BB, 1K) and Marley Oles.
CO-Dakota DeAmicis, lp, (5IP, 8R, 12H, 0BB, 3K), Madison Macklin (2IP, 2R, 3H, 1BB, 1K) and Navi Kauer.