Advance to the Class 5A state final through a 3-2 semifinal win over St. Helens
The Rex Putnam Kingsmen prevailed 3-2 in a pressure-packed Class 5A state playoff semifinal softball game with St. Helens, played before a large crowd at Rex Putnam High School on June 3.
The Kingsmen led the entire game, but the contest was no cakewalk. Adversity struck in the top of the seventh.
Putnams starting pitcher, freshman Sarah Abramson, had a no hitter going through the first six frames and the Kingsmen were up 3-0 heading into the seventh.
But there was a huge momentum shift as the Lions picked up their bats in the top of the seventh. St. Helens first batter, senior outfielder Stevie Strawn, hit a ground ball to third to lead off the inning. Putnams third baseman fielded the ball cleanly, but her throw sailed past first base, giving the Lions their first baserunner since the first inning.
Abramson walked the next batter, junior catcher Michelle Sass, putting St. Helens baserunners on first and second with no one down.
Next up was the Lions clean-up hitter, junior pitcher Mariah Mulcahy. Mulcahy rapped a ground ball to senior second baseman Mariah Oliver, who got the force out at second.
St. Helens sophomore infielder Taylor Leal then crushed a double to the fence in left-center field, scoring St. Helens first run and leaving runners on second and third with one down.
St. Helens next batter, junior infielder Alyssa Giesbers, hit a hard grounder to Putnam senior shortstop Taylor Balfour, who had positioned herself near the base path. Balfour fielded the ball cleanly, and appeared to have a chance of making a game-ending double play. But Leal, who was headed for third, had other plans. She ran into Balfours glove going hard, as Balfour was attempting to make the tag. The ball popped loose, Mulcahy scored, and it was a 3-2 ball game, with Leal at third and Giesbers at second, and only one down.
St. Helens next batter, junior Hailee Fischer, sent a long ball to right field that appeared out of reach of Putnam right fielder Lauren Roberts. But Roberts somehow got her glove on it. Leal, intent on scoring the tying run, found herself too far from third to tag up and score, so she returned to the bag.
The next batter hit a harder grounder to the second-base side of Oliver. Oliver chased the ball down and made the play at first base in time to get the out at first and retire the side. And the Kingsmen celebrated the hard fought team victory.
And it was truly a team victory. Abramson allowed only the one hit and two walks in the game, but she only had two strikeouts. The Kingsmen played error-free ball behind her until the seventh, making difficult plays look routine.
Oliver caught two fly balls and made three assists at second; Balfour caught four fly balls at shortstop; Roberts flagged down two fly balls and made an assist from right field, robbing a Lion batter of a base hit in the sixth inning; and Abramson helped her own cause with four assists from the circle.
Putnam got only four hits off of Mulcahy (3 strikeouts, one walk, two hit batters), but the Kingsmen made their hits count, scoring runs in the first, third and sixth innings.
Junior outfielder Kate Betschart drew a lead-off walk in the bottom of the first, advanced to second on a sacrifice by Balfour and scored on a single up the middle by Putnam senior catcher Ashley Culp.
With one down in the third, Betschart singled, advanced when Balfour reached on a throwing error and when Culp reached as a hit batsman, and scored on a bloop single to left by junior infielder Maggie Waymire (2-for-3).
Waymire led off the sixth with a base hit to right; freshman pinch runner Justice Duval advanced on a sacrifice bunt by sophomore first baseman Brooke Snyder and a fielders choice by junior designated player Hayley Dolfay. And Duval scored with one down on a squeeze bunt by sophomore outfielder Sydney Nichols.
Putnam left the bases loaded in the third inning and the Kingsmen left runners on base in the first, second and sixth frames.
St. Helens left a runner at third base in the first inning. Sophomore Ashley Giesbers reached with a lead-off walk and advanced all the way to third on a sacrifice bunt by Strawn. But Balfour handled a line drive at shortstop and Abramson handled a comebacker at pitcher to get the Kingsmen out of the inning with no damage done.
With the loss, the eighth-ranked Lions finished up with an overall record of 19-9. It was St. Helens first appearance in a state semifinal since 1999.
Putnam and St. Helens were co-champions in the Northwest Oregon Conference, both teams finishing with 12-2 records, and the two teams splitting in head-to-head league play.
The NWOC made a strong showing in the Class 5A state playoffs, with four league teams advancing to the eight-team quarterfinals. St. Helens defeated Sandy 1-0 in the quarterfinals, while Putnam defeated West Albany 2-1 and Liberty lost to Pendleton 4-1.
The semifinal win over St. Helens advanced the fifth-ranked Kingsmen to a state-title showdown with third-ranked Pendleton. Its the first time since 1995 that a Putnam softball team has advanced past the quarterfinals.
Asked if she were surprised that the Kingsmen advanced to the state final, Culp said, Not at all. I knew we had it in us the whole time.... Theres no doubt in my mind were going to take the state title.
Culp said of Abramson, She hits her spots, her pitches jump like crazy, and she pitches with so much confidence. Shes the best freshman pitcher Ive ever seen.
I never thought Id be playing for the state title as a freshman, said Abramson. Its crazy. Im really excited!
Abramson was quick to give her teammates credit for the unexpected success: My defense has been incredible. Theyve always been behind me, since the beginning of the season. Im never afraid to throw pitches over the plate, because I know they can defend it.
Asked about nerves in the top of the seventh, Abramson said, I was getting a little nervous, but I knew we could do it.
The win had special meaning for Balfour.
My sophomore year we lost 2-1 to The Dalles [in the quarterfinals] and I was our one run. It was heartbreaking and I promised myself Id never let my team feel that again.... This [win] means everything not only for the seniors on this team, but for the seniors who have come before and the seniors who will come after me.
Balfour said of her miscue when she lost the ball on the attempted tag, I thought that was it.... But my teammates picked me up and made the plays. They made me feel like we were true champions. Even with our mistakes, we came together and pulled through....
This team has so much heart. We leave it all out on the field. We all pick each other up when were down and we never settle for anything less than the best that we can do.