By Tom Williams
One day after graduating from LaBrae High, Jessica Buck said getting an opportunity in the seventh inning against the defending two-time state softball champions was the best present she could imagine.
The Vikings’ senior made the most of her opportunity, doubling to deep right-center field in a tie game with All-American Conference rival Champion.
Five pitches later, LaBrae freshman Kasey Rininger ended Champion’s three-year run as district winners when she hit the ball to the same area of the field, scoring Buck in Saturday’s 4-3 victory in the Division III district championship at the JAGS Complex.
“It felt really good,” said Rininger, the Vikings’ cleanup hitter. “This is really big. In the past, we really haven’t beaten them that much.”
In tournament, no one else has recently. In 2010, the Golden Flashes lost to eventual state champion Hillsdale then won the state in 2011 and 2012.
“They are very classy and have been a very good team for many, many moons,” LaBrae coach Demetra Noble said. “We knew this would be a big game.”
When reminded she still has school responsibilities even though classes have been dismissed and she has a diploma, Buck smiled.
“I hope [the school year] goes all the way to June,” Buck said. “I don’t care how long we go. As long as we keep winning, that’s all I want.
“I just want us to go all the way.”
It was the third time this season the Golden Flashes and Vikings played. In late April, Champion won the first game 5-4 and then lost the rematch, 6-5.
“We figured both teams would be pumped up and it would be a close game,” Champion coach Cheryl Weaver said. “Today, LaBrae was the better team.”
LaBrae (17-8-1) advances to its first regional game since 2005 when the Vikings were state semifinalists. On Thursday, the Vikings will play Ursuline, winner of the South Range district, at Massillon High School.
Sophomore pitcher Emily Dugan limited the Golden Flashes (15-11-2) to three hits. She struck out 11 batters and walked five.
“I wasn’t scared,” Dugan said. “I was very confident in my team — every time we got down, I knew we could [rally].”
The Vikings took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Skyler Gylani singled and Lauren Rutherford tripled. The Flashes answered with two runs in the third. Carissa Hurst drew a one-out walk and advanced on Amber Ricci’s hit. They both came home after Haylee Gardiner singled and the Vikings committed an error. The Vikings tied the game 2-2 in their third at-bat as Somer McCoy scored on Rininger’s other hit.
In the fourth, Weaver relieved starter Kayla Hunt with Gardiner.
“They were starting to tag Kayla pretty well,” Weaver said. “The ball was just hanging.”
In the fifth inning, the Flashes regained the lead after Mackenzie Kiser reached first on a dropped strike three and error. With two outs, Ricci doubled to score Kiser for a 3-2 lead.
It didn’t last long as McCoy and Buck hit back-to-back doubles to tie the game.