Pardon the Patrick Henry Patriots if they cringe from this day forward every time they hear a final score of 3-2.
In early May, their undefeated season went by the boards due to a 3-2 defeat at Hanover. After winning the rest of the way in the regular season, the Colonial District tournament, and the first two games of the Central Region tourney, Patrick Henry became the last county team to square off against the Cosby Titans in the title game a week ago in Prince George. After holding a 2-0 lead most of the evening, Cosby roared back with three runs in the sixth inning to snare the Region crown....3-2.
And so it would be that the Central Region would dominate the first two rounds of the State Group AAA Tournament this week. Cosby breezed past Oakton in the quarters Tuesday and crushed Broad Run 10-2 in Friday's first semifinal at Westfield High School in Chantilly. Patrick Henry traveled to Stone Bridge in Ashburn and shut out the team with the most wins in the state (24) on Tuesday, then used Katie Woody and Sam Moore home runs, and the one-hit pitching of Emma Mitchell, to breeze past Osbourn Park, 7-0.
In the state championship game, there would be some cases of role reversal. This time, Cosby got on the board in the first inning, scoring a run on three straight hits to start the bottom of the frame. Meagan Jones singled to left, Ellen Sweat slapped a bunt into no man's land near shortstop for a hit, then Chelsea Whitcomb laced a double to right center scoring Jones for a 1-0 lead. Mitchell settled down, retiring the next three batters on a strikeout, foul out to third and ground out to keep the Titan lead at a run.
The Patriots had a very hard time getting the offense going against Whitcomb on the mound. Chelsea, a sophomore, allowed only two batters to reach base in the first five innings (a walk and a HBP). Cosby added to their lead in the bottom of the fifth when Bridgett Blakeley scored on an Ellen Sweat single. Blakeley had opened the inning with a double.
Patrick Henry Coach Matt Crowder told his girls going into the sixth inning, "This is the inning where they got us last week. Let's get them this time." The Patriots responded to his clarion call.
After Ellen Davidson smoked a liner that was snagged out of the air by Whitcomb, saving a sure single to center, Paige Mitchell got the first PH hit of the day on a single to right. Allison Tingler's grounder to third was bobbled, the error allowing Tingler to reach base. Sam Moore popped out and Katie Woody stepped to the plate, two on with two out...down two runs.
Woody responded, sending the ball to the wall in the gap in left center for a two-run double, scoring Mitchell and Tingler. The game was suddenly tied, the Patriot fans on their feet, the PH dugout rejuvenated. Madison Gilman grounded out to strand Woody and end the inning.
Cosby went in order in the sixth, as did Patrick Henry in the top of the seventh as Whitcomb posted two of her five strikeouts in the frame. The Titans entered the bottom of the seventh ready to claim the state crown.
The first two Cosby batters were retired by Emma Mitchell, but number nine hitter Sam Quinn reached on an infield single at second to open the door for the dangerous Titan top of the order. Meagan Jones slapped an infield single. Then Ellen Sweat walked to load the bases, and up stepped Chelsea Whitcomb.
Five weeks earlier, Hanover County softball fans will recall Whitcomb stepping up with the bases loaded in the 7th inning at Atlee with the Raiders holding a 1-0 lead. Whitcomb launched a grand slam home run and the Titans won 4-1.
Emma Mitchell bore down, and with everything on the line, induced Whitcomb to ground to Ashley Samuels at second who threw her out, and we went to extra innings.
Both teams went down in order in both the eighth and ninth, save a Madison Gilman single. Two defensive gems of note for the Patriots included a double play spearheaded by Ashley Samuels to end the 8th inning, tagging out Alex Beyer, who had walked, then throwing out Holly Stargardt at first. To open the 9th, left fielder Ellen Davidson made a nice running catch on a would-be hit by Karie Burgess.
With one out in the top of the 10th, sophomore center fielder Kendall Thomas laid down a perfect bunt in front of Whitcomb to reach base. Davidson's sacrifice attempt fell short, as Whitcomb was able to throw to second for the force out on Thomas, while Davidson reached first. Then Paige Mitchell smacked a single into center. Davidson attempted to reach third base, but the throw by center fielder Meagan Jones was on target and she was tagged out at third to end the inning. The defensive stop seemed to spark the Titans into the bottom of the 10th, as their top of the order was due up. Their top three, to that point, were responsible for six of their eight hits through nine innings.
Jones began the frame sending a double down the right field line. Ellen Sweat was intentionally walked to create force play situations, though it meant Whitcomb coming to the plate. Chelsea grounded out to short, advancing the runners to second and third. The Patriots then intentionally walked Savanna Ols to load the bases, playing with the hopes of inducing two outs and utilizing the option of a force at home plate on a ground ball.
But, instead, on Emma Mitchell's 147th pitch of the game, Beyer got enough bat on the ball to bounce a single into short right field. It would be Mitchell's last pitch as a Patriot. Jones scored the winning run and the celebration commenced for the Titans. The Patriots dejectedly walked toward the third base dugout to prepare for the traditional post-game handshakes.
Patrick Henry would not be hurt by a costly error in this game with Cosby, as the Titans were the only ones to commit a miscue, and only one at that. It was a well played defensive game from both teams. Whitcomb scattered five hits, striking out four, walking just one, Paige Mitchell to open the game. Mitchell struck out six Titans, walked three and gave up three runs on ten hits.
"We just didn't have the answer for their 1-2-3 hitters," Crowder told reporters after the post-game ceremonies. "It was just like the last game. It's very disappointing."
Crowder later spoke, with much emotion, of how proud he was of this team, their accomplishments in 2012, how they never quit in the championship game, and waxed particularly eloquent about his departing seniors.
"I realized today that this was the last time I'd write names like Tingler and Gilman in the lineup. You get so used to it," Crowder opined.
Patrick Henry finishes the best season in school history at 23-3, as Colonial District Champions, Central Region Runner-Up, and now, State Group AAA Runner-Up, as well as the home of the Region Pitcher of the Year in the UVA-bound Mitchell.
But the last taste of the season was a bitter pill to swallow, for fans, parents, grandparents, and especially for the players and coaches. As time proceeds, though, that taste will wither away, and the lasting emotions and memories will be of pride, excellence, and the making of a family.
As one player tweeted after the game, "...we weren't just a team, we were a family!"
A family that has etched their place in Patrick Henry athletic history as the best softball team to ever grace the diamond in Ashland.
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