VIENNA - No matter the numbers that junior ace Delani Buckner has put up over the past three seasons, and no matter the accolades including the Gatorade player of the year award a season ago, Herbert Hoover coach Missy Smith has made sure junior Presley McGee has gotten her starts and innings too.
McGee has put up stellar numbers as well and entered the state tournament with a 0.78 ERA. But never has her importance in the circle come up bigger than it did on Wednesday night.
After Buckner logged nine innings in a 1-0 win over Independence in the heat of the afternoon, McGee fired five shutout innings against Petersburg on Wednesday night, holding the fort - and the Vikings - down long enough for the Huskies offense and for a Buckner save in a 3-0 win at Jackson Memorial Park.
With the win, the Huskies (34-1) put themselves on the doorstep of a third straight Class AA title, needing only a win on Thursday to finish the job.
Independence, who beat Nitro, 9-1, in an elimination game late Wednesday, were set to play the Vikings on Thursday morning with a start time still to be determined later Wednesday night. The winner of that game needed to beat Hoover twice Thursday afternoon.
As good as Buckner was on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, so was Petersburg junior Carly Cooper, who struck out 15 in a two-hit shutout of Nitro to advance to Wednesday evening's winner's bracket showdown. And while Cooper was good again against Hoover, the workload of the day was undeniable. Buckner, who threw two shutout innings to close the 3-0 win, had a fresh McGee to rely on.
McGee didn't throw a pitch in the team's state-title run a year ago, but extra innings early forced Smith's hand with pitchers limited to 14 innings per day. But if any coach in the state is comfortable using a second pitcher, it's Smith.
"I didn't realize that [she didn't pitch in in last year's state tournament] until she said to me today that one, she'd never bunted in a game before and two, this was her state tournament debut," Smith said. "She said, 'I think I did OK,' and I said, 'You did more than OK.'"
Petersburg fell to 33-2 with the loss.
Nitro (27-10), a Cardinal Conference member alongside Hoover, the Region 4 champions and making its first trip to the state tournament, was later eliminated 9-1 by Independence.
HURRICANE 9, GEORGE WASHINGTON 0: Hurricane softball head coach Meghan Stevens didn't need to remind her team of who the opponent was in Wednesday night's state tournament winner's bracket game.The Redskins were well aware they were facing George Washington, who handed them two of their six losses on the year.
Hurricane used those two losses as motivation, starting quick and using a four-run third inning to earn a convincing 9-0 win in six innings over the Patriots, which placed the Redskins in the Class AAA championship game Thursday at Jackson Memorial Park.
"We've been champing at the bit to play them again," Stevens said. "When we didn't make MSACs (Mountain State Athletic Conference playoffs), we said, 'No worries. To face them again, we have to make the state tournament.' We knew we didn't play our best softball against them early in the year."
The win moves Hurricane (32-6) into the championship game where the Redskins were set to play for their fifth straight Class AAA title. George Washington (31-7) was set to attempt for a rematch with the Redskins, but they had to defeat Washington in an elimination game Thursday morning to get there.
George Washington coach Kim Darby, a Logan High School graduate, said the Redskins' fire was evident from the beginning, but the confidence she has in her team's ability to rally back on Thursday has not wavered.
"These girls don't do anything easy," Darby said. "I've coached the seniors for seven years and they don't do it easy. I'm not shocked one bit that we have to do it the hard way, but they know what's at stake and I think they'll come out a little different tomorrow once they re-focus. It's Championship Day, so if we have the right day, we'll see what happens."
Caiti Mathes delivered two big blows for Hurricane, ripping an RBI double down the left-field line to jump start a four-run third inning when the Redskins took control. She added a 250-foot home run bomb to center field - her 22nd of the season - to punctuate the victory.
On a team full of state tournament experience, it was a player in her first day at the state tournament who set the tone for the win.
Freshman Alivia Meeks led off the game with a solo homer over the center-field fence, which Mathes and Stevens each said was big to calm down the Redskins and settle the game in.
Hurricane won 8-0 earlier in the day over Wheeling Park, while GW was a 4-2 winner over Washington.