Oak Creek Runner tagged out at plate by Alona Boydston
It started on Wednesday June 1st when I told the girls, “we are one of 16 teams left that get to practice today, so let’s make it count.” We all knew we were facing Riley Grudzielanek, possibly the best pitcher in state history and Northwestern recruit. If the name sounds familiar to Cubs fans it is because she is the niece of former Cub and major league all-star Mark Grudzielanek. She throws a blazing 70 mile per hour fastball from 43 feet, which is the equivalent of a 98 mph fastball in baseball-, and she is in high school! We were sitting at 20-3 and two of those losses were against her, one in extra innings. The problem was we were shut out, even in the extra inning loss. She is such a phenom she averages 16 strikeouts in a 7 inning game. She has actually struck out all 21 hitters this year in at least two games- against good teams!
We decided we had to do something different. We worked four rounds of hitting all at 70 mph, we bunted, we ‘slapped’, we did half swings, we did short swings with the bat on the shoulder. No one took a full swing at all. I said this is the plan and we are going to stick with it.
When we got to the field the next day, I thought we had a chance but, I had no idea it was going to go back and forth for nearly four hours, we would score six runs off a kid with an ERA below 1, both teams would be one strike away from a win only to be thwarted, each pitcher would throw nearly 200 pitches, and the fifteen inning marathon was almost postponed due to darkness.
As the lower seed, we were the visiting team and hitting first. I made one significant lineup change and moved my nine hitter Kaia Mismash to lead –off since she can bunt and run. On the second pitch, she was on first with a lead off bunt. I knew we had to be aggressive so I sent her and she stole second rather easily. Morgan Fuhrer’s swinging bunt moved her to third and I knew we had a chance to make them play from behind. Our all-state third baseman Emma Giese, who led our team with eight home runs and had never bunted all year, laid down a perfect bunt scoring Mismash giving us the lead 1-0. After another sacrifice bunt, a ground out, and our half of the inning ended. It was as good a start as I could imagine.
The entire strategy was just put the ball in play! Oak Creek never has to play defense was my thinking. This came into play in the second after we got out of the first with some nice plays by centerfielder Kaia Mismash who has as much range as any outfielder I have seen. We tried our bunting strategy again and Oak Creek handled the first two fairly well. Then they made a mistake and Taylor Jacobson reached on an error on her bunt. With two outs already I took a chance on the bases and Tay-to (as I call her) stole second on the first pitch. Then on Addison Johnson’s bunt, the third baseman sailed the throw high and Tay came all the way around. I said to myself “this is working, they never have had to play defense!”
After a 1-2-3 second, we were back at it in the third. With one out Giese seemed to power bunt the ball past the pitcher to the shortstop and beat the throw. Again, I had to be aggressive and I gave Emma the steal sign. Emma stole second and I had clean-up hitter Grace Peltier bunt her to third. With two outs, we needed a hit and catcher Alona Boydston singled to right scoring Giese. This was unbelievable, “the best pitcher in the state had not given up more than three runs all year and we scored three in the first three innings!” I thought to myself.
Then came the bottom of the third. A coach’s nightmare. I knew they were not going to go away and they were going to fight. A lead-off triple and a single got them on the board. Then after a bunt hit, and with a base open, I made the fateful call to intentionally walk Grudzielanek. Seemed like the right move-do not let their best hitter beat you, and you have an open base. Unfortunately, for us, their next hitter Madison Noll is just as good and belted a grand slam to give them a 5-3 lead. We got out of it, and I kept thinking what my assistants and some colleagues told me- the kids react to your energy. Even though I’m thinking there is no way we score five runs off of her, I stood up straight and said as confidently as I could “stick to the plan ladies, the plan is working!”
The score stayed the same heading into the sixth when Alona crushed a double over the left fielder’s head. A wild pitch sent my courtesy runner to third when my young Freshman outfielder Morgan Calhoun singled to right bringing us within one! Now I’m thinking we have a chance! However, Grudzielanek will be Grudzielanek and she struck out the next three in order.
We enter the 7th still down that one lone run. I am again thinking, “Well, we gave them a game.” Having no idea we were about to play another full game plus an inning.
It did not start so well with a quick strike out, but Morgan Fuhrer helped herself and drove a double off the fence. A quick wild pitch and we had a runner on third with only one out. Giese struck out and it was up to our clean-up hitter Grace Peltier. Gracie was quickly down 0-2. At this moment, I started thinking how to console Grace and planning the “it was a great season speech.” However, I forgot Grace is the only one to have hit Grudzielanek in the previous two games. At that moment, she lined a single to center tying the game! Our side went crazy! It felt like a football game. The atmosphere and energy was incredible! Alona lined out to end the 7th. No one could have predicted no one else would score until the 14th.
That’s not to say there was no excitement. Every pitch and every out seemed to elicit a small uproar. I can usually tune out the fans and dugouts on both sides but it was loud. We had runners on second and third in the 10th, first and third in the 12th, only to have each rally stopped. For us it seemed even more intense. Oak Creek had runners on second and third in the 8th, a runner on second in the 9th, runners on first and third in the 11t, all stopped by solid plays by our infield.
Then the big play of the game came in the 12th. We had a “bend but not break” couple of innings but zero errors up until that point. Oak Creek had a single by Grudzielanek followed by a strike out by Noll and a pop out to short by Rickert. With two outs Olivia Joosten singled hard to center, Kaia slightly bobbled the ball but recovered. With a chance to score and end the game Oak Creek waved the courtesy runner for Grudzielanek around third to score. Then as cliché as it sounds, everything went into slow motion, I gauged where the runner was, where the throw was in the air, a play we have drilled since they were in sixth grade and hundreds of times in the gym in March. The throw was perfect, Grace, our first baseman, was in perfect position and delivered a strike to Alona at home who applied the tag and we live to play another inning. Our side erupted, Oak Creek groaned, neutral and softball fans just shook their heads- what a game.
We went down 1-2-3 in the 13th. Oak Creek made it tough again with a lead-off double. After a pop out to short and a walk they had runners on second and third with only one out. Morgan then got a ground out to her and then a very tricky pop out our second baseman, Zoe Connell, who had been amazing for us all year, had to go back into short right field and make a very difficult catch running sideways.
We enter the 14th inning pushing nearly four hours of softball and pushing daylight. We start well with a double by Morgan to the left-center fence. They intentionally walk Emma. I stuck to the game plan and have Grace bunt everyone over. They walk Alona intentionally loading the bases with one out. Then our freshman outfielder Morgan Calhoun delivered a single to right scoring Morgan from third. Realizing this may be our last opportunity to score I wave Emma around- on a perfect throw, and a close play Emma was called out at the plate. We just took the lead, scored six runs off Grudzielanek! I started to believe we were going to do this!
Only three outs to go! We had to face their best two hitters in Grudzielanek and Noll. On a tricky hop to short, Taylor fired a trike to retire Grudzielanek. Then Noll grounded out to second. Then Brianna Rickert came up for Oak Creek. Morgan got ahead in the count one ball and two strikes, I am shouting “one more!” The dugout is almost giddy. Then on a 1-2 count, Rickert hit the most clutch home run I have seen. Soul crushing for us, pure elation for them. Truly a “joy of victory agony of defeat moment”. However, the game is not over, it is only tied and we have to get out of the inning. We do, on a pop up to Emma at third, and we head to the fifteenth.
The umpire immediately says last inning no matter what. Both sides are running on fumes. Literally no quit in either team. We got the lead off runner, Taylor Jacobson, on and move her over on a sacrifice bunt. Then a strikeout by Kaia and line out by Morgan ended our half. The strategy was then get out of the inning and live to play on Friday. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. A base hit by Emma Schmidt, followed by sacrifice bunt gave Oak Creek a runner on two. Then leadoff hitter Sierra Kilbourn dumped a hit right between right and center scoring Schmidt easily. The Oak Creek dugout was jubilant and their crowd rightfully ecstatic. They are headed to state in Madison in the most dramatic fashion possibly ever. Maybe the best sectional final game in WIAA history. Possibly the best playoff game in WIAA history.
For me personally and our coaching staff and entire team, it felt like a punch to the gut. That is how sports goes and if you cannot handle it, you should not be in it. I consoled the dugout and then got out to the field as soon as I could. I tried to console Morgan who had been amazing all year and battled for fifteen innings matching Riley pitch for pitch. My senior infield that had been together since sixth grade was despondent. There are no words on the losing end of that. I gave Zoe and Grace a hug and we took the team out of the way of the celebration to left field.
People asked what I said to them. It is not a speech one prepares. I just said I know nothing I say will be much consolation but I am proud of this team and watching you grow. I love this team and thanks for giving this program everything you had until the end.
Texts and emails started pouring in from coaches I know around the state, Indian Trail staff, family and friends states away. I had no idea how many people were actually watching! One positive from COVID is everyone is now an expert on live streaming and all these games maybe once lost to memory are now available to watch and saved for all time.
As painful as it was for us. It had to be the opposite for Oak Creek. They battled just as hard and deserved the win. Do I wish we were playing Thursday? Of course! However, I want them to win the entire thing and win it easily. That way people will say the real state championship was played on June 2nd in Kenosha.
That is how it went Kenosha. The greatest game I have ever seen at any level baseball or softball. It was an honor to coach these kids and to be a part of it.