Austintown Fitch survives upset bid from Amherst Steele

YOUNGSTOWN — For much of the day, it seemed no matter what reigning state champion Austintown Fitch did, upset-minded Amherst Steele had an answer to stay in the mix.

But a Kaliana Ray RBI single in the top of the ninth inning proved to be the difference, as the Falcons staved off an upset bid from the youthful Comets for a nine-inning, 2-1 victory in a Division I regional semifinal Wednesday at Youngstown State.

“It was just a heck of a game,” Fitch coach Steve Ward said. “It was a lot of fun. … I’ll tell you what, this is fun, this is exciting, and this is why we do it. It was great to see (our girls’) character.”

The Falcons (20-1) and Comets (20-8) battled through seven scoreless innings before each team plated a run in the eighth.

For much of the game, the Falcons were able to notch hits off Steele’s starter, freshman Karina Shuster. In fact, Austintown Fitch had 12 hits as a team.

But through those first seven innings, any time Shuster ran into trouble, she and her defense would deftly work out of the jams to keep the game deadlocked.

Both starters, Shuster and Fitch’s Sydnie Watts, pitched all nine innings. Shuster finished with five strikeouts while Watts fanned 16.

“We put the bat on the ball a ton,” Ward said. “(Amherst Steele) just made every single play that they could. Their outfield tracked the ball very well, and they’re just a well-coached team and they battled to the very end.”

Each team finally broke through in the eighth.

In the top of the frame, freshman Kaliana Ray bunted for a single to lead things off for the Falcons, and then subsequently stole second. She came around to score on a triple from Kylie Folkwein.

But in the bottom of the eighth, the Comets answered as freshman slugger Kayla Rhodes launched a pitch from Watts off the left field foul pole to knot things back up at 1-1.

“Kayla was looking for something inside, and she must have gotten it and loved it,” said Amherst coach Lacey Reichert, who played softball at Youngstown State from 2001 to 2004. “For Kayla to have that kind of composure against one of the best pitchers in the country and do that, you don’t expect that out of a freshman. For her to do that was amazing.”

And of returning to Youngstown for Wednesday’s regional semifinal, Reichert added, “I have the best memories here. My phone was blowing up — I had about 100 and some text messages from former teammates. These girls are friends for life. I love Youngstown, and I love the area. It’s awesome (to be back).”

The Falcons went back ahead in the ninth, however, and this time they made it stick.

Samantha Severn led off with a single, and Lily Stevens and Folkwein each laid down sacrifice bunts to move her to third. That set up Ray’s go-ahead single with two outs.

“It just worked out perfectly — Sammy Severn got on, we executed two great bunts and then roll it up with Kaliana coming to the top of the order. And I think everybody in the dugout and in the stands knew she was going to do something special.”

Ray added, “I just read the pitch, and Coach Ward lets me do whatever I want, so if I see the defense back, I bunt. But I was just looking for that good pitch, waiting for a pitch I could drive.”

Ray finished the day with four hits, her final two being the biggest. Abby Toth doubled, while Watts singled twice. Severn added another single and a triple.

And in the bottom of the ninth, Watts wouldn’t be denied, as she swiftly worked through the inning to slam the door on Amherst Steele.

“When (Rhodes) hit the home run, she just put the score back to 0-0 and we spent the whole beginning of the game at 0-0, so it really didn’t stress us out too much,” Watts said. “And I knew we would come back in and score some runs.”

The Falcons now await Walsh Jesuit in Friday’s regional championship. First pitch is set for 5 p.m. at YSU.

“We’ve been here before, so the nerves aren’t really there,” Watts noted. “If we play like we know how to and don’t get too overconfident or too nervous … we’ll come out on top again.”

Have an interesting story? Contact sports editor Joel Whetzel by email at jwhetzel@tribtoday.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @JoelWhetzel.


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