South Range wins 5th straight district title, defeats Columbiana 13-3

Staff photo / Preston Byers South Range’s Jayli Wilt and Giada Pauline celebrate after Wilt’s walk-off home run against Columbiana on Thursday.

BEAVER TOWNSHIP — South Range won its fifth consecutive softball district championship Thursday in a six-inning 13-3 victory over Columbiana. The Raiders, who fell behind 2-0 in the top of the first, finished the game with a walk-off, two-run home run by Jayli Wilt in the bottom of the sixth.

“I want to use the word contagious,” South Range head softball coach Jeff DeRose said of his program’s continued success. “We gave them, obviously, the chance and the goal to get to the regional tournament this year, and they proved themselves that they’re worthy of being here.”

Wilt’s homer was the second of the day for the Raiders, as Heidi Bartels hit a grand slam in the fifth inning to put South Range up 11-3.

“Our No. 9 hitter hit a grand slam,” DeRose said. “I mean, that’s our No. 9 hitter. It goes to show you that we come to play. We’re ready to roll.”

Bartels’ grand slam served as the Raiders’ fifth-inning coup de grâce; South Range scored a pair of runs earlier in the half-inning on Columbiana errors before, with the bases loaded, Clippers ace pitcher Mackenzi Gamble hit Ashley Rupert with a pitch and then walked in the fourth run of the inning.

Before the fifth, the two teams had not been separated by much, if anything at all. Columbiana jumped out to an early lead on a two-run single by Caitlynn Pleska in the top of the first inning. South Range cut the lead in half moments later, though, with a Wilt single in the bottom of the same inning.

In the second, an error-filled play by the Columbiana infield allowed a pair of runs to score and South Range to take its first lead of the game. Like in their 9-6 Division III, Northeast 1 district semifinal victory over Poland, however, the Raiders could not keep the lead for very long.

Pleska, who hit a home run in the Clippers’ 7-1 district semifinal win against Rootstown, solo homered again Thursday in the third inning to knot the game up at three runs apiece.

The teams found themselves in a stalemate of sorts for the next few innings until the Raiders jumped on a few key mistakes by Columbiana.

“Even in their big inning, when they extended and took the lead for the last time, we had our opportunities,” Columbiana head coach Daryl Kurtz said. “We have a diving catch over there in foul territory, just an inch away from the glove – 2-RBI single. We have the infield in, it’s a blooper, it’s off our second baseman’s glove, rolls over here.

“Today just wasn’t our day. The ball was one inch further than we needed it to be, and that’s the way it goes. Give these guys an inch and they take a mile. That’s an excellent team. That’s a well-coached team.”

During the fifth inning, Kurtz replaced Gamble with Pleska in a similar move that DeRose made during South Range’s semifinal victory in which WIlt was replaced by Rupert. Unlike the Raiders’ pitching change on Tuesday, the Clippers could do little to stop the momentum of South Range on Thursday.

Wilt, in particular, who was pulled after four innings on Tuesday in which she walked six and allowed three earned and three unearned runs, bounced back from her rough outing in the semifinal and even a shaky start in the championship game.

“What I know about Jayli is even though she’s pitching a lot for us, she will go to her pitching coach Bob Smith and correct what needs done,” DeRose said. “She did it yesterday, figured out a mechanical problem and she worked on it last night. She worked on it here today, and it was proven today. She pitched, I think, one of her best games of the year.”

Including her game-sealing home run, Wilt went 2-for-4 and had three RBIs at the plate Thursday. And in the circle, Wilt walked just one batter in six innings and struck out four en route to the victory.

For Kurtz and Columbiana (25-5), the loss at South Range on Thursday concludes one of the best seasons in school history.

“I’m so proud of our girls, especially our seniors. I feel for them. Obviously, we didn’t envision our season ending today,” Kurtz said. “Columbiana’s only won one district championship ever in softball. … So we were trying to do something that only one team had ever done in school history. And we came very close, inches — some of these plays were inches away from being made.”

As for South Range, the Raiders now return to the Division III regional tournament in Berea, where they will play Northeast 4 district champion Wellington. The team will have a six-day break before its showdown in Berea, though, during which DeRose said he will add a tune-up game to help his team prepare.

South Range (26-3) is scheduled to play Massillon Tuslaw at 2 p.m. at the Roehm Athletic Complex on Wednesday. If the Raiders advance, they will play the winner of Norwayne vs. Champion on Friday, May 24.

Have an interesting story? Contact Preston Byers by email at pbyers@tribtoday.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @PresByers.


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