Dragon softball state champs!
by Bridget Weishaar
The drive to Pratt was a long one for the Valley Falls Dragons softball team but the end reward was well worth the trip, as the Dragons captured the 2A state championship trophy with an 11-2 win over the Ellinwood Eagles.
The first at bat of the championship game saw seven hitters come to the plate for the Dragons.
Sophomore Allison Kearney started off the inning with an infield single to the shortstop. Kearney’s single was followed up by another from freshman teammate Reagan Kirkwood. With two on and no outs, senior Jenna Kramer drew a walk in the third spot and the Dragons quickly found themselves with the bases loaded.
Following with the momentum, Natalie Pickerell came to the plate hitting a line drive single into center, scoring two runs on the play. They would turn out to be the only runs for Valley Falls in the first as the inning closed out after Josee Neiberger hit to the pitcher with the throw going to third, stopping the lead runner. Paige Wildeman was called out on strikes and Taylor Long hit a line drive right back to the pitcher.
In the bottom of the inning, Kearney took the mound for the Dragons only facing three batters. The first Eagles hitter only saw three pitches before retiring to the dugout. The next batter up for Ellinwood grounded out to Kirkwood at shortstop, followed by another “K” from Kearney.
A short Dragon second brought four to the plate. Freshman Laikyn Hawk went down on strikes and Mallory Burns popped up to the first baseman. Kearney was able to reach base on a stand-up double, only to be left on when a hit off the bat of Kirkwood was scooped up and sent to first just in front of the runner.
In the bottom of the inning, the lead-off batter for Ellinwood reached on a soft single to left field followed by a bunt single. With two runners on and no outs, that was the farthest the Eagles would reach on the base paths in the inning. The Dragons put away two pop flys and recorded another strike out from Kearney.
Already up by two, the Dragons picked up another three runs in the top of the third. Kramer stretched a full count at bat into a ground rule double when her pop fly to right center bounced over the outfield fence. Pickerell came to the plate and grounded out, advancing Kramer to third. She would then score on a wild pitch from the Eagles offense.
Neiberger was able to reach first, running out a high pop fly that was dropped by the Ellinwood first baseman. Wildeman also reached base on another offensive error and the Dragons again found themselves with two runners on and only one out. Taylor Long came back to the plate for the Dragons and quickly found herself down 0-2. A wild pitch from the Ellinwood pitcher allowed a Dragon double steal, placing both runners in scoring position. Long grounded out to first but drove in an RBI with Neiberger crossing home plate.
The Eagles’ catcher threw to third attempting to get Wildeman also advancing on the play, only to overthrow the ball allowing the Dragons their fifth run of the game. Hawk ended the inning with a strikeout, only seeing three pitches.
The Dragons made quick work of the Eagles in the bottom of the inning when Kearney picked up a three-pitch strike out. The next batter reached on an error but was thrown out on a six-three-five double play from the Dragons.
Burns was the first to come to the plate for the Dragons in the fourth. She grounded out to third followed by a long fly out to left field by Kearney for the second out. Kirkwood then drew a four-pitch walk, stealing second and achieving third on an overthrow before the inning would come to an end on Kramer’s pop up easily handled by the Eagles’ first baseman.
Down by 5, the Eagles were finally able to cross home plate in the fourth. Hawk effortlessly picked up a slow roller and touched her bag to record the first Ellinwood out of the inning. The second batter was handled on a hit back to Kearney on the mound. A single off the glove of Kearney was picked up by Kirkwood but the throw wasn’t in time, placing a runner on with two outs for the Eagles.
A two-out double over the head of DeLong in center field scored the run just before a three-pitch strikeout shut down the Eagles running game.
A short Dragon fifth only saw three make plate appearances. Pickerell, Neiberger, and Wildeman all went down on infield ground outs before heading back to the dugout.
Trailing by four, Ellinwood scored again in the fifth attempting to close the Dragons 5-2 lead. The inning started with a ground out to Kearney and a throw across the diamond by Burns at third. With two outs recorded in the books, a misjudged fly ball to left field allowed a double for Ellinwood. The runner was able to steal third with no throw attempt from the Dragons.
A bunt attempt was then successful for the Eagles after catcher Jenna Kramer fell trying to pick up the ball and make the throw to first. An Ellinwood run would score before a ground out to Neiberger ended the inning.
The Dragon bats came alive again in the sixth on a lead off single by Long. Flex player Drew DeLong entered the game in place of Long. Hawk was able to lay down a bunt single achieving first with no throw from the Eagles defense. With two on and no outs, Burns roped a line drive into the left field gap scoring DeLong.
Kearney then worked a full count into a walk after fighting off six pitches into foul balls, loading the bases for the Dragons. With ducks on the pond, a well placed sacrifice fly from Kirkwood allowed Hawk to tag from third scoring the Dragons first run of the sixth.
Two on and still only one out, the Dragon offense went to work again when Kramer got a hot line drive past the third-base glove of Ellinwood scoring two. Kramer was picked off attempting extra bases on the play for the second out of the inning. Pickerell ended the scoring streak grounding out to third base.
The Dragons’ defense again shut out the Eagles, allowing only four batters in the bottom of the inning. Kearney handled a slow grounder, along with a caught fly ball to the shortstop Kirkwood. A single to center would see a runner with two outs, but a short pop up to Hawk at first closed out the Eagles sixth.
Not slowing on the offensive side, the Dragons’ score increased by two in the top of the seventh inning. First at bat, Neiberger reached on a single to center field. Next Wildeman singled with the throw going to second sending Neiberger back to the dugout. Long picked up the second out on a pop up to the Eagle pitcher. With two outs, Hawk drew a walk and joined Wildeman on the base paths. A Burns single scored Wildeman from second.
Hawk was also attempting to advance on the play but got caught in a run down between second and third. After avoiding being tagged out twice, Hawk slid safely back into second and the inning continued with two outs bringing Kearney up next for the Dragons. A well-placed ball into left field scored Hawk, advanced Burns to third allowing Kearney a double. The inning ended on a Kirkwood fly out to the Eagles second baseman.
With the end in sight, the Dragons defense was flawless in the seventh and final inning of the game. Kirkwood handled the first out of the inning on a ground ball throw out followed by a pop up in foul territory caught by Hawk at first.
Second baseman Neiberger recorded the final out of the championship game catching a quickly dropping line drive just before touching the ground and the Dragon celebration began.
When asked at what point did he realize the girls might actually win state, coach Mike Glissman stated, “I felt really good about our chances on Friday. I told Coach Stout at the motel before we left for the game that they may just come out and hit the heck out of the ball Friday after the walk off win on Friday.”
The road to the championship game started out as a nail biter for Glissman and the Dragons against the number five seeded Northern Heights. Northern Heights jumped out early in the first scoring their only run of the game.
The Dragons were three up, three down into the fourth before Josee Neiberger was able to reach on an infield single to the short stop. She then placed herself in scoring position by stealing second and eventually third. Unfortunetly for the Dragons offense, back-to-back strikeouts stranded Neiberger leaving Northern Heights up 1-0.
Allie Kearney brought the Dragons alive in the sixth with a two-out home run over the left field fence, tying the game at one. The seventh inning was quiet for both teams, only seeing three batters each.
Heading into the eighth, Northern Heights first two outs came easy for the Dragons, fielding a ground ball to short and a fly out to third. The next batter would reach base on a dropped third strike, placing one on with two outs.
The fourth Northern Heights batter in the inning then singled up the middle. Running in from center DeLong scooped up the ball, throwing it to third just ahead of the runner, ending the at-bat for Northern Heights.
Taylor Long led off hitting for the Dragons in the bottom of the eighth inning with a single up the middle. DeLong was sent in as a pinch runner for Taylor. Hawk laid down a sacrifice bunt, moving DeLong into scoring position at second base. Burns came to the plate with one out and roped a single into center field.
With runners on the corners, the Dragons saw heavy hitter Kearney come to the plate again. Kearney grounded out, bringing up freshman teammate Reagan Kirkwood. Down 2-2 with two outs, Kirkwood sent a hard hit line drive between the shortstop and third, driving in DeLong and winning the game 2-1.
When asked how he felt being down by one in the sixth inning, Glissman stated, “I was nervous, but feeling we were starting to get better swings. I was also hoping a bloop double wasn’t going to be the difference.”
The semi-final round pitted the Dragons against the number one seeded Sedan Devils. The Devils were no match for the Dragons as they picked up a 15-0 win in just five innings.
The Dragon bats were hot, scoring nine runs in the first, including a two-run home run from Kirkwood, seeing 14 batters in the inning. Long drove in an RBI in the fourth, followed by another five runs in the fifth on two two-run home runs by Kirkwood and Neiberger. The final RBI again came from Long, ending the semi-final round 15-0.
The first round win was led by junior pitcher Josee Neiberger on the mound. Neiberger struck out eight, throwing 18 first-pitch strikes. Kirkwood recorded two hits and one RBI in the win. Sophomore Allie Kearney took the bump in the semi-final round, sitting down three batters with 14 first-pitch strikes in five innings.
Kirkwood collected four hits, driving in four runs followed by both Neiberger and Long with three RBIs a piece.
Coach Glissman said the number one play of the weekend occurred Thursday, when Allie’s home run tied the game.
“Josee’s pitching was clutch the whole game, being down 1-0 and keeping it that way the rest of the night,” he said.
The championship game was again led by Kearney on the mound striking out five with 21 first-pitch strikes. A trio of Dragons led the runs batted in with two each. They were Mallory Burns, Jenna Kramer, and Natalie Pickerell.
The Dragons ended their season 22-4. The state championship win is the first in the school’s history.
Asked how that felt, Glissman said, “It feels great, fantastic. I’m very happy for our school. It’s been a long wait and I’m very proud of our players. The team saying was ‘always do something extraordinary’ and I think they did!”
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