AKRON – Bradford showed it belonged in the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division IV softball state semifinals on Friday.
It took an extra inning and a small break that eventually decided the outcome, one that went in favor of Hillsdale, who pulled out a dramatic 1-0 win over the Lady Railroaders to advance to the state championship game on Saturday.
Hillsdale, from in Jeromesville in Ashland County, came into the game as the heavy favorite, ranked No. 1 in the state as a team and making its 15th state final four appearance as a program with six state titles and three state runners-up.
The Falcons were led by senior pitching ace Sydney Long and catcher Kaylee Cline and two other seniors who were members of the 2016 state semifinals team.
The Railroaders, who were on the big stage for the very first time and led by four freshmen, didn’t let the moment overwhelm them.
“It was a heck of a game. It was like looking in the mirror at each other,” Bradford coach Shon Schaffer said after the game. “Both teams had great pitchers and great hitters, and I’m sure if you look at the stats everything was probably fairly close.”
Bradford put together the first scoring opportunity in the top of the third inning when a pair of freshmen – Maggie Manuel and Samantha Brewer – hit back-to-back singles to start the inning, but the Railroaders were unable to bring them home.
Hillsdale had a runner in scoring position in the bottom of the fourth inning, but senior center fielder Chelsea Gill ran down a flyball with a great catch to get Bradford out of the inning. It would one of four good catches by Gill on the day.
“After the fourth inning I told the girls be prepared because at this pace were going to play 14 innings … because it was just how the game was going,” Schaffer said.
That statement almost played out as both teams had a couple other scoring opportunities and every time it got turned away, eventually sending the game into extra innings.
In the bottom of the eighth inning with one out, Hillsdale senior Kaylee Cline coaxed a walk from Skipp Miller. Then Hillsdale senior pitching ace Sydney Long singled to put runners on first and second.
Then things got weird as Emily Crossen hit a popup to second base, which was called an infield fly rule by the umpire that no one seemed to hear. The ball popped out of the glove, and the runners took off, not realizing the call, and what potentially could have been a double play by tagging the runner heading to second turned out to be fortunate for Hillsdale as both runners were able to advance to second and third base.
Miller, who has been in pressure packed situations more than a few times already this year as a freshman, was able to work the next batter to two strikes. But a change-up pitch that got away from her and the ball went into the dirt past catcher Elisa Martinez far enough to allow Hillsdale runner Kaylee Cline to come home from third base, scoring the game’s only run and giving the Falcons the 1-0 win.
“We knew it was going to be a close game, and I thought the first run scored would win the game, and I was hoping we would do that in the first inning and win it regulation,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer never imagined that the first run would be in extra inning and scored the way it was … but he was right on that it would be the run to win the game.
“We had opportunities to win it, and people can say that play cost us the game. It just happened to end the game. It didn’t cost us the game. If that run was scored in the third inning no one would have said that … or if we could have scored a run in one of the earlier innings. A game is played out over many innings and not just one play wins or loses it,” Schaffer said.
“We had base runners in scoring position a bunch of times, and they did as well. It was just back and forth. I told the girls probably at least 100 times it was one of the best games I have ever seen, not just us playing, it was just a big-time effort. We kept our composure and kept battling. I told them I was real proud of them and so glad we all got to experience this and be a part of it,” Schaffer said.
Shaffer has plenty to be proud as his team finished 22-4 and advanced further than any other Bradford softball team with a sectional, district and regional championship and a state final four appearance.
Friday marked the end of the high school softball careers of Bradford seniors Chelsea Gill, Hannah Fout, Bailey Wysong and Aspen Weldy.
“We have four seniors on this team who have contributed a ton this year and have helped guide our younger players including four freshmen by keeping it loose, keeping it fun and feeling good. I believe they have learned a lot from them on how to play softball while keeping their composure,” Schaffer said.
Experience goes a long way, and Hillsdale had senior players who were in this situation before. Much like then Bradford now has key young players who have state experience, and Miller and Emma Canan had something to say about.
“This whole experience has been huge,” Canan said. The way our community has rallied around us and the people who have come out to watch us and support us. I’m seeing people I’ve never seen before … it’s been such a neat experience.”
Schaffer echoed her thoughts.
“This team has polarized our town and these kids are like celebrities. It’s unbelievable how these girls have brought the fans out and it them. Nobody but them that has done it,” Schaffer said. “We’ve had a bonfire, a float parade send-off where hundreds of people came and there is only few hundred people in the town. I think everyone from Bradford was at the game so it’s a good thing the Darke County Sheriff patrols the town,” Schaffer added.
The future of Bradford softball is bright, and Miller summed it up best.
“I was hoping to make it farther than this,” Miller said. “This was great … but we didn’t come here just to be here; we came to win.”
Coach Schaffer and his young players looked at each other and said we have unfinished business to take care.
The team has captured the imagination of a community and the hearts of many and with a strong nucleus of young players returning and more coming and now state level experience no one should be surprised if they don’t just make good on that unfinished business statement.