Heppner hauls in state title

<p>Staff photo by E.J. Harris The Heppner softball team reacts after winning the 2A/1A state softball championships with a 4-2 win against Glendale on Friday in Corvallis.</p>

A double play is a pitcher’s best friend, whether it arrives by way of sure-handed infielders or more unconventionally means.

The Mustangs lit the final fuse for a state title celebration when third baseman Cassi Day applied the tag on Glendale’s Elizabeth McGuire as she slid into third on a mid-range fly ball to end the seventh inning. As the umpire punched his fist to signal the out, softball gloves flew into the air to signal Heppner’s 4-2 Class 2A/1A State Championship victory on Friday from Oregon State University’s Softball Complex.

Guarding a 4-1 lead, Glendale (28-2) put runners on second and third base with just one out. Heppner (23-4) pitcher Baily Bennett eyed down Morgan Streeter at the plate, Glendale’s top hitter who came into the game with a .605 batting average. The shortstop lifted a pitch to left field, just deep enough for the runner on third to score, Bennett thought.

But not deep enough to advance the Pirate from second to third.

“I could see the runner going to third so I didn’t go behind home, I cut in front of third so I was ready for the play,” Bennett said.

Bennett cut off a strong throw from left fielder Cidney Coster just off the mound and flung the ball to third for the final out. The runner from third, Victoria Mozingo, scored on the play, but the final outcome lay unchanged.

“I was just thinking, ‘Holy crap, this could be it!’ ” Day said. “I just thought, ‘Baily, Baily, oh my gosh!’ ”

The state title appearance marks only the third time that Heppner has every played in the tournament, and the first time it advanced past the quarterfinals. Glendale was also seeking its first softball championship.

Friday’s title bout featured a pair of vastly different squads. Heppner relied heavily on Bennett this season as the junior pulled down every one of the team’s wins while posting a sub-0.50 ERA and striking out 182 batters. She had six strike outs against Glendale.

She was tasked with trying to plug the rushing waterfall of runs that the Pirates have produced this season and keep the state’s second-ranked team in check. Glendale had only one hit off Bennett through five innings while a “zero” hung on the visitor’s side of the scoreboard.

Glendale averaged a Herculean 15.6 runs per game coming into the championship.

“We’ve done it before when we’ve started out bad and come back and won games, but this time we couldn’t do it against (Bennett),” the Pirates’ Streeter said. “She’s got the speed and her changeup catches you way off guard. It was definitely different going from that fast to slow.”

While the Pirates were tripping over themselves trying to get acquainted with Bennett’s pitchers, the Mustang batters hit hard from the first inning. When two of the first three runners got on base, Day knew she had to take advantage of early opportunities.

With two outs, the senior ripped a double to left field that brought home both Bennett, who reached on a walk, and Micha Hintz, who got on because of an infield error.

“It helped us get all pumped up and going and on to our little streak that we have when we can just play our game,” said Day, who finished with two hits and those two RBIs.

From there, the Mustangs climbed onto Bennett’s shoulders as the pitcher shut down the top-scoring softball team in the state for 2A/1A. The Pirates started to see pitches better out of the Heppner hurler’s hand in the late innings, Streeter said — as made evident by the three hits the team collected in the last two innings — but ran out of frames in which to do damage.

Glendale errors played a part in three of four runs for Heppner as well. McGuire, who pitched a full complete game while striking out four and walking two, was tagged with just one earned run.

That came in the fourth inning to give the top-ranked team from Heppner a 4-0 advantage. With two outs, Samm Lemmon walked and moved up to second on a Hintz single. Then Maggie Collins singled to left field for the RBI.

“All the games we’ve won this year we scored first, so when we scored first and then kept scoring, it was like, ‘Hallelujah!’ ” Collins said, the last word with head tilted back, aimed at the heavens.

Heppner will lose only two seniors from their state championship roster. Graduating this spring are Day and first baseman Natalie Rauch.

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