Steubenville girls stunned in D-II state
AKRON — With senior ace Jules King perfect through 6 1/3 and holding onto a 1-0 lead, it looked as though Big Red was on its way to adding a state final appearance to what was already the program’s best season in its history.
It was not to be, though.
Canfield’s offense finally broke through with its first two base-runners of the game with one out in the bottom of the seventh and ultimately got both of them across home plate to bring Big Red’s remarkable run to a heart-breaking end with a 2-1 defeat in the Division II state semifinals at Akron’s Firestone Stadium.
“It hurts for our four seniors,” Big Red head coach Gus DiMarzio said. “I love my kids, they fought all year for me and I appreciate everything they’ve done.
“I’m just really proud of my team.”
King, who had fanned 10 batters to surpass the 700-career strikeout mark and had not issued a walk, had her bid to be perfect end when the Cardinals’ Gianna Pannunzio blooped a ball that dropped in between Big Red infielders for an infield single. Hailey Freedy then singled to put two on, and they both got in scoring position on a fake-bunt double steal.
A pitch then got away to plate the tying run, and Canfield’s Faith Morell laid down a bunt on a squeeze play and Freedy beat the play at the plate to bring the game to a stunning end.
“(Morell) did a great job getting the bunt down,” Canfield head coach Michael Kernan said. “With one out … when we got the one run to tie it, we wanted to make them have to make the defensive play. Hailey has good speed, (Morell) is a good hitter, we don’t ask her to bunt much but we know she can and we ended up executing it pretty well.
“We wanted to put the pressure on the defense and make them make the out.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions, that’s for sure.”
Big Red was held to just one hit in the game — and made it count for the run that was two outs from being the difference.
Paige Matteson, who had earlier made a great snag on a liner at shortstop to save a hit, sent a hard-hit ball up the middle and to the centerfield fence for a standup double to lead off the fifth.
She got to third on Sagan Smarrella’s groundout, then scored when a throw to third trying to catch her off the bag sailed into the outfield.
Canfield’s Marlena Toth, though, proved to be tough to solve for Big Red’s talented lineup, fanning 11 batters–including a stretch of 10-straight. She was aided by a couple key double plays by her defense, too.
In the top of the first inning, Big Red was threatening with King drawing a walk and stealing second to get in scoring position, but a diving catch by Pannunzio on a bunt attempt that popped up, followed by a heads-up throw to second with King having started towards third, turned two to end the threat.
“She gave us a boost to start the game and to end the game, which is some good timing,” Kernan said of Pannunzio. “We made a couple of big double plays and in general played very solid defense. She got a big hit to get us going, stole a base and scored the tying run, and she made a good play on defense to get us going early in the game.”
Then, in the top of the seventh, with Big Red looking to add some insurance with Sophia Zorne having drawn a leadoff walk, Matteson hit a hard liner that Canfield second basemen Sydney Lutz snagged and gunned to first to turn two, again thwarting a budding rally.
Big Red’s run to program’s first the state tournament appearance also captured the program’s first district and regional championships and broke the program record for wins in a season.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year wasn’t just to be district champs, regional champs, OVAC champs, it was to be here,” King said. “It would have been great to have one more game, but it means a lot to get here.”
LOTS OF SUPPORT
A large group of Big Red faithful made the trip to Akron for the game, something DiMarzio and company were very appreciative to see.
“It means everything,” DiMarzio said of the community support. “Steubenville is a proud town with hard-working people. For them to come out and support us and shout and get behind this team was huge for us.
“There are a lot of great girls out there that play this game and lot of great cities that support them. I’m really glad we added to the tradition and the City of Steubenville realizes and knows that we’re here.
“This is it is about; this is why I took the job years ago was to get here (to the state level). We’ve always had support, the city has always been behind us, the people of Steubenville have always loved us … when you get to a place like this, it just shows that much more. For them to be here today and support us, we’re very proud.”
KING (With a lot of Ks)
King’s 10 punchouts gave her double digits in each of Big Red’s tournament games. Her reaching the 700 mark for her career comes in the same season she surpassed 400, 500, and 600 for more than 300 Ks on the campaign. The mark is also extra impressive considering her freshman year was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m so proud of (King), if you go through your career and strike out 700 people, you’re pretty good,” DiMarzio said.
She is signed to play collegiately at Tiffin University.
Big Red will depart four seniors from its historic group, Hillary Rauch, King, Tori Mitchell and Gianna Boley.
“I love all four of them kids,” DiMarzio said. “Two of them were cheerleaders, they could have walked out and they didn’t, they stayed and they plugged away and I am proud of them. And, I am proud of the two that (started).”
A LOT COMING BACK
While King and the senior class leave big shoes to fill, seven of the nine players to start Thursday’s game were underclassmen.
“We’ve got a great nucleus, we’re young, we’ve got young pitching that nobody has seen, and I would hope you will see us here again,” DiMarzio said.
In fact, three sophomores and five freshmen saw the field for Big Red on Thursday, leaving optimism for a bright future.
“For sure (the returning group has what it takes to get back to the state tournament), they’ve got a great junior class coming up, a great freshman class coming in, and this year’s freshman class was amazing, so anything can happen,” King said.
“Most of us have been playing together for a long time,” sophomore Sena Smith, who King pointed to as a leader of the young group, said. “I’m ready for (the challenge) and ready to keep it moving forward. Hopefully we can make it a little bit further.”
Canfield will meet Tallmadge in the state championship at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The Blue Devils pulled off a walk-off rally of its own against Greenville in the other semifinal, erasing a 5-2 deficit to win 6-5 in the bottom of the seventh.
Tallmadge and Canfield have met once this spring with Tallmadge taking an 8-4 victory late in the regular season.