Kaila Mick had all the reasons to feel confident with two outs in the top of the seventh inning.
She had just made a stellar play from her shortstop position, ranging up the middle to get the lead runner out at second for the second out of the inning.
All the Henley softball team needed was a single out against the heart of the Warrior line up to send the Hornets to the semifinals for the third straight season with an 11-7 win over No. 7 Philomath.
Despite playing in the 12th playoff game of her career and playing with a lead, Mick’s heart began to beat faster and faster.
The second out was followed by a walk and then an RBI single. With two Warrior runners on base, one more blast over the fence would have forced a tie game.
“That last inning, I’m freaking out because I’m thinking ‘are they going to hit it over the fence again?’” Mick said, tapping her heart.
Another ball wouldn’t leave the yard, Lilly Poe punched out her 10th batter of the game to give the Hornets the 11-8 win — sending them to the state semifinals for the third straight season.
It doesn’t take long looking up and down the 2019 season to see Henley has won a lot of games, 28 to date, and nearly as many blowouts. The consensus in the dugout was certain: The Hornets hadn’t been pushed the way they were by Philomath.
“(Philomath) came out with energy and execution and played the game,” said head coach Bobby Mick. “They were ready to play, they did a great job and our girls responded phenomenally.”
“We’ve played some good teams and we’ve lost, but no team has pushed us like this,” Mick, the player, said.
Henley is playing with a target on its back and it only grows with each passing game. To advance past Philomath it took playing clean, aggressive softball, finding ways to get the hard-to-come-by third outs and responding to challenges rarely seen this season.
Two of the same
It was clear to Mick during warmups the Hornets would be facing a quality team. In the first inning, he saw a team that mirrored his own in how they ran the bases. Putting pressure on the basepaths has been a staple of the the 2019 Hornets offense — Philomath tried to do the same.
Unlike teams in the past with more pop in the lineup, this Henley team relies on speed and taking an extra base when available.
In the first inning, Philomath tried of pull and Henley but was unsuccessful in its effort. The Warriors’ Kaili Saaftoff singled to right field and Hannah Williams, on second rounded third and headed home. Rather than make a desperation throw to the plate, right fielder Carli Moore hit her cutoff, Jessica Northcutt, who then threw out Sathoff at second to end the inning with minimal damage.
“They wanted to take those extra bases,” Mick said. “We didn’t allow them. We could have easily thrown that ball to the plate and let the runners be safe at the plate and safe at second, and who knows what happens after that.”
Pressure on the basepaths allowed the Hornets to take its first lead of the game. Pinch running in the second inning, Beth Hamilton was able to score from first following on a single from Paige Barnett, a risky throw from Kamden Combs trying to get Hamilton at third was off the mark, allowing Hamilton to score to give the Hornets a 2-1 in the second.
“We were pressuring them the whole time,” Kaila Mick said. “We were taking the extra bases when we could, that extra 60 feet gave the advantage when it came to scoring those runs.”
The lead for the Hornets, however, would be a short-lived one.
Poe was also pitching in her 12th playoff game. When she was pitching with one or no outs, she was deadly. Six strikeouts, two hits and a walk, Poe looked every bit the part of one the state’s top arms.
As soon as she recorded the second out of the inning, it was a different story.
Henley was leading 2-1 in the third inning, Alex Sharp made a lunging grab in left field and held on the ball as she tumbled to the ground and Mick flashed the leather with a diving stop in the deep in the hole for the second out of the innings.
Kiya Smith then homered to tie the game. Amie Russell and Saathoff singled then came round to score on a Combs double which barely cleared the glove of a leaping Moore in right.
An out away from getting out of the inning, the Warriors took a 4-2 lead. Poe’s numbers with two outs: 11 hits, eight earned runs, two home runs and only three strikeouts.
“They were a good hitting team, it’s the most this season that I’ve been pushed as a pitcher,” Poe said. “I’d get two quick outs, with the wind I’m like ‘I can’t throw it here, I can’t throw it there and if I throw it here they are going to hit it out.’”
As much as the Hornets struggled to get the third out, Philomath faced the same challenges. Henley would score seven unanswered runs — six coming with two outs.
At the plate, Poe was able to even the score at four a piece on a sharply hit ball which Philomath’s shortstop Williams couldn’t handle. Northcutt and Sharp both scored on the error.
In the fifth, Henley looked primed to put the game out of reach. RBI singles from Kylie Melsness and Mick followed by a two-run Maddie Perez — all with two outs — extended the Hornet lead to 9-4.
Another two quick outs for Poe in the sixth inning was followed by a pair of singles and a flyball from Williams which got caught in the wind that carried and carried over the centerfield fence for a three-run home run, 9-7 ball game.
“The first time they scored I told them that one run isn’t going to win the game, it got to four and I said four runs isn’t going to win this game, I promise,” Mick said. “We just have to keep playing the game and try to win innings.”
The Hornets would need 10 runs to win the game, Northcutt lead the bottom of the sixth with a solo homer then Poe added another RBI with a single to give Henley its needed insurance.
A needed push
It was a game that the Hornets needed.
Friday’s game was only the fifth game decided by three or fewer runs for Henley — two being losses to higher divisions — the last one came its third game of the year — a 6-5 win over Junction City in late March.
The back-and-forth nature of the game was something that this team hasn’t faced this season. Yet the Hornets were able to persevere.
“It’s hard when that kind of pressure is one you not to get down, personally I was getting down,” Mick said. “But the team didn’t get down ever. When I saw that they were up and on the fence, I was like ‘we are fine.’”
Doubt could have crept into the minds of the Henley players when facing a 1-0, 4-2 deficit. Or when getting the third out became a challenge or Philomath started hitting the ball out of the park.
But it didn’t and the Hornets get to play another game because of it.
“Fear of losing isn’t something that isn’t in these girl’s mindset,” Mick said of his players. “I’m just really impressed and really proud of them.”
All that stands in the way of a third consecutive trip to the state title game is Banks, which squeaked by McLoughlin 6-5 in the quarterfinals. The game will be played at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
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