Spoiler alert

Big 6th inning propels Wildcats over Panthers for region championship


McKenzie Tucker

Junior Lauren Flanders runs between third base and home plate to avoid an out. In the three-game series, Flanders went 7-for-13, scoring three runs and stealing five bases. In the end, however, it was Whitewater hoisting the region trophy for the second year in a row after winning the series 2-1.

After a regular season filled with dominant performances, Starr’s Mill and Whitewater continued their rivalry in the region championship series. 

These two teams have played in the region championship since 2016. During the regular season this year, Starr’s Mill went to Whitewater and beat them 13-1, then Whitewater traveled to Starr’s Mill and won 7-0.

I’m kicking myself in the butt for probably not pulling [Backes] out sooner.”

— head coach Mark Williamson

The two teams again split to begin the best-of-three series. When it was all said and done, Whitewater was victorious, defeating Starr’s Mill in a come-from-behind win, capturing the second straight region title for the Wildcats. 

Despite losing, Starr’s Mill put up great offensive and pitching numbers. Junior Jolie Lester and senior Paige Andrews put up a show, going 8-for-12 and 5-for-11, respectively. Lester hit two doubles, an RBI, and two home runs, while Andrews accounted for two doubles, and an RBI as well, on top of scoring a run.

Sophomore Lilli Backes pitched nearly 18 innings  and recorded 22 strikeouts throughout the entire series. Andrews finished out games two and three for Backes, but she did not manage a single strikeout.

“I don’t know exactly what [Backes] needs to take [from the series],” Starr’s Mill head coach Mark Williamson said. “If we would have kept her fresh, I think we would have been fine. I’m kicking myself in the butt for probably not pulling her out sooner.”

Whitewater had solid hitting led by freshman Makayla Coffield and junior Raeghan Byrom. Coffield went 3-for-9 with a double, and an RBI. Byrom went 2-for-10 with two steals, and a run. 

Coffield also made a huge impact with her pitching performance. In the series, she threw for 19 strikeouts in two games.

Game one began with Backes on the mound for the Panthers, who only gave up a walk, and struck out two of the first four batters. In the bottom of the first, junior Lauren Flanders led off with a double. Lester capitalized with a single RBI. 

“Half of [the series] helped us with our hitting,” Lester said. “But then with the other half we need to let it go and look at what’s in the future.”

Whitewater struck back when junior Lily Griffith took advantage of a fielding error to score. After two innings of play the score was already tied 1-1.

In the third, Lester capitalized with Flanders on second by hitting a two-run home run, increasing the lead to 3-1. That home run helped get momentum going for Starr’s Mill. They continued to run up the score throughout the rest of the game.

Backes initially struggled, but throughout the series multiple infielders, especially Andrews, came to the mound to talk to her. She eventually found her footing and threw 11 strikeouts in game one. The final score of the first game was 8-1 Starr’s Mill.

We feel like we got a team that can win a couple of rounds and hopefully end back in Columbus, and we’ll just see what happens there.”

— head coach Mark Williamson

“We still have a great team no matter what happened [in the series],” Flanders said. “I think we’ve got a good shot to make it pretty far.”

The second game began with Backes hitting an RBI that brought Lester in for a score. After that, no one scored on both sides for the rest of the first half of game two. Coffield took over pitching duties for Whitewater, and she managed four strikeouts in three innings.

At the bottom of the third, Byrom hit an RBI to tie the game. Then Coffield was hit by a Backes pitch, and Griffifth was able to reach home base to take the lead.

“[I learned] to work on pitches,” Backes said. “We just have to stay focused [going forward].”

Backes began to show signs of fatigue at the midway point of game two. She only put up half the strikeouts she did in game two than in game one, and gave up four hits and five walks.

Coffield’s pitching shut down the Starr’s Mill offense for the rest of the game, throwing five more strikeouts. At the bottom of the fifth, senior Alexis Larrow hit a single RBI to bring Griffith home.

Starr’s Mill tried to rally for a comeback at the top of the seventh, with Lester and Backes both hitting singles. However, Andrews was struck out, ending game two with a 3-1 Whitewater victory.

“We’re going to focus, in the rest of the practices, on getting better,” Andrews said. “Getting our bunts down, not making errors in the field, and hitting the ball well.”

With the region title on the line, the two teams met the next day for game three. Right off the bat RBIs from Lester and Andrews immediately gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead. They were stalled, however, when Coffield was subbed in to pitch.

In the bottom of the third, Lester hit another home run to make the score 3-0. Other than that, defensive play was the name of the game, as it was for most of the series. Neither team would score in the fourth of fifth innings. Going into the sixth inning, the Wildcats needed to score three runs to stay in the game.

Whitewater began the sixth with a two-run RBI by senior Alexys Buffington. Backes then threw a bad pitch that gave Byrom the opportunity to steal home. Immediately after, Coffield hit an RBI to take the lead for the Wildcats.

“[Backes] threw 18 innings in two days, she had to be tired. That’s not normal for a person,” Whitewater head coach Robert Townsend said. “She did a great job, but she had to be getting tired. We just got to her because she was throwing so many [pitches].”

The Panthers could not bounce back. Whitewater came away with a 4-3 victory in game three, winning the region championship.

Both teams will be heading into the state playoffs this week. Whitewater will represent Region 3-AAAAA as the No. 1 seed, with Starr’s Mill being the No. 2 seed.

“We feel good. Obviously, it’s not the feeling we want,” Williamson said. “We feel like we got a team that can win a couple of rounds and hopefully end back in Columbus, and we’ll just see what happens there.”

Starr’s Mill will host Thomas County Central in the first round of the state playoffs in a doubleheader on Oct. 8 at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. If a game three is necessary, it will be the next day at 5:30 p.m.

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