EAST PALESTINE - Tied 1-1 with a runner on third in the bottom of the fifth inning, East Palestine freshman Jessica Leake had no precedent for a game-winning hit.
Oh, how times have changed.
Leake doubled home the go-ahead run, giving the Bulldogs the lead in a game where every run mattered, as East Palestine defeated Rootstown 4-1 in Division IV sectional play at East Palestine City Park on Thursday.
"It's my first big hit," Leake said. "I've never even had that type of chance before."
Leake's RBI sparked the biggest offensive run of the game for either team, as the Bulldogs scored three runs in the inning to build what proved to be the game's final lead. Before the fifth inning, East Palestine had just five hits, scoring one run.
"Most of this season, it's been our three seniors who have scored the runs,"
East Palestine coach Dan McKinstry said. "But in the fifth inning, it was two freshmen and a sophomore bringing home runs."
The inning got started when Sidney Smith reached on a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Holly Siracuse. After a pop out, Leake smacked a double into right-center field to give the Bulldogs its second run of the inning.
The Bulldogs (10-16) weren't done there however. After Karly Pence and Logan Gatchel walked to load the bases, Haley Huff brought home two more runs for East Palestine on a single.
"It wasn't like we fell apart," Rootstown coach Jason Ray. "They got a nice gap-shot from her (Leake). They hit the ball well in that inning. It wasn't like they were hitting the cover of the ball. They just found their timely hits while we didn't."
East Palestine's offensive punch is a sign of development for a young Bulldogs team that has occasionally struggled to push runs across the plate. McKinstry credits a desire for improvement within the team that allows the Bulldogs to rely on younger players in key situations.
"Earlier in the year, we would strike out all the time," McKinstry said. "We just weren't comfortable with the bat. It's been a lot of work from the coaching standpoint, but there's also been a willingness to learn from the younger players."
"In the beginning of the year, I struggled at the plate," Leake agreed. "I've been working on bunting, just to help me make contact with the ball. Now that we're in the tournament I just want to give 100 percent and make sure the season doesn't end."
The fifth-inning offensive outburst masked what was another dominant pitching performance by East Palestine senior Karly Pence. In a complete game effort, Pence allowed just one run on five hits with 10 strikeouts.
"We've seen pitchers like Pence all year," Ray said. "Our problem at the plate today was that we were looking at too many called third strikes. Other than that, we essentially played error-free softball. I give Coach McKinstry and his team all the credit."
Rootstown's only run was scored in the fourth inning. Down 1-0, Brandi Barkhurst and Madison Hartung hit back-to-back singles, with Barkhurst advancing and eventually scoring on an East Palestine outfield error. Amanda Tishma added another single to advance Hartung to third, but Rootstown could not bring home another run.
The Rovers were led by Barkhurst, who had two singles and a run scored, as well as Tishma, who had two singles and a pair of stolen bases. The game was a learning experience for both Ray -who spent time at Lisbon as a baseball varsity assistant - as well as his team.
"We gained mental toughness over the year," Ray said. "We're doing things we didn't do in the first game of the season. Everyone is starting to play the game. This is my first tournament game as a head coach. I want to thank everyone in the area who's given me support for this."
Rootstown's tournament hopes may be dashed, but the Rovers have several games remaining in its Portage Trail Conference. In stark contrast, East Palestine has no regular season games remaining and must advance knowing that a single loss will bring an end to its season. Up next for the Bulldogs - a visit to Atwater Waterloo at 4:30 p.m. today.
R: 0-0-0-1-0-0-0 - 1-6-1
EP: 1-0-0-0-3-0-X - 4-8-1
EP -Karly Pence, wp (7ip, 6H, 10K, 0BB, 1R) and Haley Huff.
R-Briana Ryan, lp (6ip, 8H, 4K, 3BB, 4R) and Mandy Huth.