By RYAN PRITT
Herbert Hoover showcased what has separated it from the Class AA field over the past two seasons in a 5-1 win over Bridgeport in a Class AA Region 2 softball final on Wednesday, but not until after the final out was recorded.
Before the Huskies (31-1) could even line up for a photo with their shiny new regional plaque, they were sent to the outfield to run poles, a message sent from coach Missy Smith, who was less than thrilled with her team's performance.
Yet for the 65th time in the team's last 66 games, Hoover was good enough, riding strong pitching from Presley McGee and Delani Buckner and a big second inning to finish off the Indians and punch their ticket to the state tournament in Vienna, where the Huskies will try to win their third straight state championship.
It was a moment most teams would cherish. But Hoover has held itself to a different standard over the past few seasons, and despite being happy to move on, the team recognized its flaws on Wednesday.
"We played pretty good but you can never be perfect enough," McGee said. "We could've jumped on them harder, but we didn't so ... poles."
"We didn't play well," Smith added. "When you're playing someone and you're trying to end their season, they're not going to go quietly, and Bridgeport came ready to play today. Thankfully we were able to get it together but we didn't play well."
In particular, Smith was displeased with leaving six runners on in six trips to the plate, with quite a few pop ups and harmless outs coming in at-bats with runners on. Hoover was able to string some hits together in the second inning with a four-run uprising, and that proved to be the difference.
Buckner led off the frame with a solo home run and was followed by singles from Cortney Fizer, Grayson Buckner and Caroline Woody. Fizer scored on a passed ball, Grayson Buckner came home on Caroline Woody's hit and she scored when sister Rebekah Woody laced a two-out single to right-center field.
Four runs for the Huskies, who sport a team ERA of just north of 0.50, is almost always enough, and so it was again on Wednesday.
But Hoover was presented with several chances to push the issue, with the leadoff hitter reaching in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings and the at-bats that followed left Smith a bit uneasy.
"We didn't get the hit when we needed it," Smith said. "[Monday in an 8-0 win at Bridgeport] we couldn't get the leadoff batter on, but we scored with two outs and kept innings going. Today we got runners on - a leadoff double and stranded her at second - those things you can't do in the postseason. We're in the state tournament now with the three other best teams in the state. You can't leave runners in scoring position like that and expect to come out on top."
Bridgeport's lone hit in the two-game series came off the bat of Paige Humble in the fourth and it was a solo home run to right field to cut Hoover's lead at the time to 4-1. McGee responded by punching out two of the next three hitters and Bridgeport didn't get a runner into scoring position after that. McGee finished with six strikeouts in 51/3 innings before yielding to Delani Buckner, who recorded the final five outs, all via strikeout.
Delani Buckner also had a day at the plate, going 3 for 3 and driving in the Huskies' final run with an RBI single in the fifth inning.
As for the good news, Hoover will open the state tournament on Wednesday against Independence, a team the Huskies beat 8-0 in Coal City on April 24.
The team did finally get its team picture, though sweaty and heaving for breath, but it was all fine with McGee and company as an experienced and talented group now sets its sights on bringing a bigger, more meaningful trophy back to Falling Rock for the third straight season.
"We play hard, we work hard, we expect a lot and we get everything we deserve," McGee said. "We've just got to make our plays, get everybody out we can, don't take anything for granted and don't overlook anybody."
Herbert Hoover joins Kanawha County and Cardinal Conference rival Nitro in the state tournament field.
SHERMAN 7, WAHAMA 2: The visiting Tide (29-4) broke the Falcons' 23-game winning streak in the opening round of the Class A, Region IV tournament. Autumn Thompson struck out five in earning the win.
Hailea Skeens led Sherman with three hits. Sydnee Ferrell and Chelsea Thompson had two hits apiece. Hannah Rose and Tanner King each had two hits for Wahama (29-2).