By Ryan Buck
The shocked, sullen stares across the faces of the Poland 13-14 year-old All-Star softball team certainly emanated a feeling of “the one that got away.”
Through six innings of strong pitching and an unforgiving defensive effort Wednesday afternoon at Firestone Stadium, the Ohio state champions looked destined to continue their season and march on to the Junior League World Series in Kirkland, Wash.
But down to their final three outs after an equally strong effort, Poland’s opponents from Escanaba, Mich., had their own aspirations of a World Series trip.
Escanaba (6-0) used three consecutive, no-out singles and two Poland (4-1) errors in the top of the seventh inning to erase a 1-0 deficit en route to a 3-1 triumph and a Central Regional title.
“Any loss hurts whether it’s early or late,” Poland manager Chuck Masluk said. “It’s really tough, of course, when it’s at the end of the game.
“On our side, it was tough,” Masluk said. “We had to play really well that last inning. [Escanaba] executed very well.”
A Katie Ross lead-off walk and a bunt single from MacKenzie Leisner saw the Michigan state champions with runners on first and third and no-outs in the decisive seventh.
Kayla Vanportfliet stroked a line-drive single to right field off Poland ace Aleah Hughes to tie the game at 1-1. She then advanced to second uncontested.
“Her performance all year has been very strong,” Masluk said of Hughes, who had allowed only three hits through six innings. “She’s a great pitcher. Even in that seventh inning, she did what she had to do.
“They just executed very well on their bunts. The ball just didn’t bounce the right way for us.”
Fielding Taylor Segorski’s two-strike squeeze bunt attempt, Hughes’ throw to the plate caromed off the glove of catcher Jenna Schettler as Leisner slid home safely. As the ball rolled to the backstop, Vanportfliet raced home for a 3-1 advantage.
“We’ve been a solid team all the way through and when we needed it, it wasn’t the top of our order,” Escanaba manager James Segorski said. “The bottom of the order started us off; six, seven, eight, nine all came up big. It was a team effort.”
Ally Deemer retired the last three Escanaba batters. Poland managed a baserunner in the bottom of the seventh, but never threatened.
Things had looked promising for Poland early. Schettler led off the bottom of the first with an infield single before advancing to second on a wild pitch. The speedy catcher tagged from second and raced home when on an errant throw after a diving catch on a pop-out behind home plate.
“Baserunning-wise, she’s one of the smartest and most aggressive baserunners. It was amazing to get a 1-0 lead just from smart base-running,” Masluk said.
Ross, Escanaba’s ace, stymied a Poland lineup who posted 10 runs in Tuesday’s victory over Elyria. It’s the second straight year the Poland club has fallen one game short of the Junior Softball World Series. Two years ago, Poland won the Little League 11-12 regional and finished fourth at the World Series in Oregon.
“Losing in a game like this is tough,” Masluk said. “It’s something they should take with them in the future as they play. Don’t ever think you’ve got a game in hand or where the next game will be. You’ve got to live for the moment and play for the moment.”