LaBrae beats Champion for district title

JEFFERSON – When respect crosses the line into fear in sports, the result is rarely a win.

The LaBrae Vikings took a healthy amount of respect into their Division III district title softball game against the two-time defending state winning Champion Golden Flashes, but fear never entered the equation. Having split two one-run games with the Flashes in the regular season, the Vikings knew they could hang with the champs.

That point was made loud and clear when Kasey Rininger lined a double to right-center field to score Jessica Buck in the bottom of the seventh inning to give the Vikings a 4-3 win here Saturday at the JAGS complex.

“We had already seen them twice this year and we knew what we were capable of,” Vikings coach Demetra Noble said. “That changes your whole perspective coming into a game setting like this. For someone on the outside that hadn’t played them before it would have been a problem. For us it was not.”

The Vikings (17-8-1) advance to the Massillon regional and will play Ursuline in a semifinal Thursday at 5 p.m. The Flashes finished with a 15-11-2 record.

Buck began the winning rally with a one-out double off Flashes relief pitcher Haylee Gardiner. Rininger, facing the most important at-bat of her career as a freshman, worked the count to 2-2 before lining a fastball up the gap in right-center. She never thought about choking up on the bat to increase the odds of making contact.

“I felt like I was going to hit the ball for my team,” Rininger said. “I felt really good to hit it all the way to the fence and help my team out.”

Buck doubled off Gardiner in her previous at-bat, which increased her confidence in her seventh-inning plate appearance.

“On the bus ride here I knew it was going to be a close game,” Buck said. “I envisioned like I can do this; I got it.”

The win went to starting pitcher Emily Dugan, who allowed just two hits. She struck out 10 and walked five in going the distance. Dugan allowed two unearned runs in the third inning and one unearned run in the fifth.

“I wasn’t afraid at all,” the sophomore pitcher said. “I was very confident in my team that we would win. Every time we got down I knew we could bring it back up.”

Dugan had to work out of trouble in the seventh when Gardiner reached on a two-out error. Noble called for an intentional walk of the dangerous Sierra Blackson, putting runners on first and second.

Dugan then struck out Brittany Allen to escape without damage.

“She’s 16-years-old. She was very nervous the whole week,” Noble said of Dugan. “I had to really talk to her to get her de-pressurized. It’s very nervous to put a young girl in this kind of setting. She did a great job. I called the pitches for her the last two days. If we were going to go out, we were going to go out with me being the one that made the mistake.”

The Vikings scored once in the second when Lauren Rutherford tripled in Skyler Gilanyi, who singled with one out.

Champion’s Carissa Hurst walked and then came around to score when a throw to second on a fielder’s choice went into the outfield. Amber Ricci, who hit the ground ball, reached second on the play and then scored on a single by Gardiner.

The Vikings tied the score at 2-2 in the bottom of the third on a single by Rininger that scored Somer McCoy, who reached on a fielder’s choice. Flashes starting pitcher Kayla Hunt worked out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam to end the uprising.

Mackenzie Kiser of Champion struck out leading off the fifth but reached safely when the throw from the catcher was off the mark at first base. Kiser moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Hurst and scored on a double by Ricci.

The Vikings tied the score in the fifth when McCoy doubled leading off and Buck singled her home.

LaBrae will be making its first regional appearance since 2005.

“I’ve been working for this all of my years in high school,” Buck said. “I’m so glad we finally got here and beat the two-time state champs, so that makes it even better.”