While the Yellow Jackets' softball program has enjoyed a gradual ascension to the upper echelon of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference over this decade, winning the ODAC Championship in 2015, they've always been compared to their brethren to the southeast, both in conference with Virginia Wesleyan, and out of conference with Christopher Newport.
Wednesday, the Yellow Jackets hit the field at Marlins Park believing that, as their head coach Kevin Proffitt told them, no miracle was needed to beat their opponent. And, for fifteen innings over two nail-biting games, Randolph-Macon did just that. Believed. In the end, it paid off, big time.
In the first game, Candace Whittemore (Patrick Henry) led off with a walk to Kiersten Richardson (Glen Allen), who moved to second, later to third on a grounder, then scored on a Cassity Howerin double for a 1-0 Marlin lead. Whittemore, with help from her defense, wouldn't allow that to happen again during regulation play, as the junior allowed just three hits on the afternoon.
The problem belonged to the Yellow Jacket offense, trying to figure out 2017 National Pitcher of The Year Hanna Hull (Clover Hill), who mowed her way through the Randolph-Macon order early on. Cracks began to show in the fifth, as Sami Davidson singled to right, but was left there. In the seventh, Whittemore struck out to begin the frame, then Savannah Wood sent a blooper into shallow left center field. Center fielder Beth Ford (Patrick Henry) and Richardson at shortstop both went after the ball, but neither caught it. Wood aggressively moved to second base on the play to get a Yellow Jacket in scoring position.
Senior Harley Jones wouldn't disappoint, cracking a Hull delivery to the base of the center field fence for a double to score Wood to tie the game at 1-1. Whittemore got the Marlins in order in the seventh, forcing extra innings.
In the eighth, Randolph-Macon moved their automatic base runner from second to third, but no more, as Hull hurled two big strikeouts in the frame. The Marlins answered quickly as Ford's sacrifice bunt moved Julia Sinnett to third base. A pair of walks loaded the bases. Howerin stepped in and laced a one-hopper to Taylor Sanderford (Atlee) at third, who threw home for the force. But, with two outs, Kaitlyn Biando roped a single past Wood at shortstop to bring Richardson home again, this time with the winning run for the 2-1 victory.
Missed opportunities at the plate frustrated the Yellow Jackets, but for a young team, they quickly turned the page and got ready for game two. Freshman starter Madie Rhoads was already prepared, having all of game one to watch her opponents.
"I see what they swing at usually, and our coaches give us information and I tend to look that over," Rhoads said when asked about preparation when you're the game two starter. "I usually look at what they're hitting, and not hitting, and try to go for what they're not hitting, obviously."
The Marlins returned Hull to the circle in game two. The Yellow Jackets greeted her with a first inning run on Harley Jones' RBI single to score Savannah Wood, who had walked and stole second, for a 1-0 edge. The Marlins answered as Howerin again doubled to score Richardson. After an inning, it was 1-1. It would stay that way for a long time.
Rhoads, a graduate of Nansemond River High School, returning to the area where she pitched in high school, settled in to retire six in a row before a fourth inning leadoff walk to Howerin. Biando singled to give the Marlins two runners aboard. Amy Large popped out to second baseman Maddie Stone, then pinch hitter Taylor Cardamone struck out. Rhoads followed with a strikeout of Julia Fassl, and the Marlins stranded a pair.
Defense also needed to be sterling for the Yellow Jackets to come away with a win. Davidson, behind the plate, launched a strike to second base to cut down Ford trying to steal second to end the Marlin fifth inning. That set the stage for Randolph-Macon's big inning, by today's standards.
Whittemore led off with a single to right center, moving to second on a Wood sacrifice bunt. After a conference in the circle, Hull intentionally walked Jones, the Yellow Jackets leading home run hitter, recognizing her double, and a near miss earlier on a deep fly ball. That brought up Davidson, who flied out to Ford in center. With two outs, up stepped Shelby Hill, who launched a single into left center field. Whittemore motored around third and scored without a play at the plate. It was 2-1 Yellow Jackets.
Now it was Rhoads' turn to finish the job. In, without a doubt, the biggest defensive play of the game, with two out in the sixth, Biando looped the ball into shallow right field. Kerstin Roth raced in, unable to make the catch, but Stone, too, chased the ball, raced to it past Roth, turned and fired a bullet right to second base, Wood applying the tag for the third out as Biando was cut down trying to advance to second.
Rhoads took care of the rest, striking out Large, then pinch hitter Jessica Lindsay, then, to close it out (see video below), pinch hitter Maria Weddle became Rhoads' tenth and final strikeout victim. On her 100th pitch, the freshman slammed the door, the perfect season was over for the Marlins, and the Yellow Jackets mobbed Rhoads near the circle to celebrate a very important victory.
"I have confidence in my teammates, and I knew that she had it," Rhoads said referring to Stone's outstanding coverage and throw in the sixth inning and, subsequently, the final strikeout for the win. "As soon as it happened, I don't know, I almost fell to my knees but I stayed composed."
For Randolph-Macon, now 10-2 in ODAC play and 31-3 overall, the game two win could act just like the game two win at Christopher Newport did two months ago on opening day. The Yellow Jackets ripped off 21 straight wins before a ten-inning loss to Lynchburg. It's an opportunity to launch themselves to an even higher level of play and execution. Whittemore was, again, the workhorse, even in defeat, and Rhoads now knows she can win in the circle against the best. Add in the great work of Kayley Scott (Lee-Davis), and the Yellow Jackets prepare for ODAC Championship play with something they haven't really enjoyed: pitching depth.
What they don't want is the emotion of the victory in game two to dictate that this game was the apex of their season, resulting in a downhill slide to the postseason. An NCAA Tournament bid is almost assured for this team, and a deep run is possible, but only if they continue to work to improve, and put game two's victory behind them as quickly as they did the defeat in game one.
For Virginia Wesleyan, nothing changes. Their perfect season may be gone, but so is the quiet, unspoken pressure that comes with the chase for perfection. The Marlins expect to win the ODAC, and expect to return to, and win, the College World Series. None of that was affected by today's split. If anything, they'll learn from game two and be even more dangerous next weekend in Salem.
Rhoads, still on her first trip through the ODAC universe, is very aware that while this win is one to savor, it does not constitute the top of the Yellow Jackets' intended 2018 mountain.
"I feel like this is another cushion, it boosts our energy definitely," Rhoads said, reflecting on the nightcap win. "We''re definitely not at the top yet."
NOTES: Randolph-Macon is in second place in the ODAC at 10-2, while Virginia Wesleyan leads at 13-1 and, barring a late collapse, the Marlins will be the top seed in the ODAC Championship beginning Friday April 27. The Yellow Jackets must next face third place Roanoke in a Saturday doubleheader moved to Lord Botetourt High School beginning at 1pm. Sunday, the Yellow Jackets make up a doubleheader at home with Guilford at 3pm and 5pm, then close out the regular season at Randolph for another make-up twinbill at 3pm and 5pm. Randolph-Macon clinches the two seed with a 4-2 record or better over the final days of the regular season.
For the Marlins, Hull's third strikeout in game one gave her the new ODAC record for strikeouts in a career with 382. Hull struck out fifteen Yellow Jackets in game one, but only one in game two. Hull threw 112 pitches in the first game, 89 in the second. For Rhoads, she scattered four hits in game two, striking out nine. Rhoads continues to lead the conference in ERA at 0.63, Hull just behind in second at 0.67, followed by Whittemore at 0.73, then Kayley Scott at 1.27.