FORT WAYNE — Lakeland softball could taste its first regional championship since 1993.
The Lakers led Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger 6-2 entering the bottom of the seventh. They were three outs away from advancing to the Class 3A Semistate semifinals at Twin Lakes on Saturday.
Less than 15 minutes later, the Saints were celebrating a 7-6 come-from-behind victory, stunning Lakeland in the Regional final Wednesday at Carroll High School near Fort Wayne.
“It was the perfect storm for them. They didn’t give up, you have to give them credit for that,” Laker coach Lauren Harris said. “I think our minds were moving faster than our bodies. We talked a lot about throughout the game about slowing the game down, one inning at a time. And, I think the last inning, it kind of got the best of us.”
The first four batters reached for Dwenger in the bottom of the seventh, including RBI’s from Hannah Harnish and Brianna Yager. Runners were on first and second when Lakeland starting pitcher Elisa Edwards struck out Alyssa Hall for the first out of the inning.
This brought freshman Lexi Linder to the plate, who ripped a 2-RBI double to the left-center wall to tie the game at six.
The next batter, Leah Zimmerman, singled. Linder got caught in a rundown trying to score the winning run, though, for the second out of the inning. Zimmerman advanced to second on the rundown.
With two outs and a runner on second, sophomore Cecilia Garrett hit a slow roller in between the Lakeland first and second basemen. A miscommunication on who was going to play it, followed by a throwing error from the second baseman, allowed Linder to score the game-winning run.
“We used our speed to our advantage. We have a fast lineup 1-9,” Bishop Dwenger coach Beth Peters said. “The girls bought-in to what we told them about waiting for the pitches to come down. We needed the bottom of the order to do something, and they did.”
Harris said the Lakers’ youth may have led to the last-inning collapse.
“We only have two seniors. We have freshman and sophomore on the infield. In big pressure situations like this, for Lakeland, we haven’t been here that often,” Harris said. “I think in the seventh inning, (the lack of experience showed). I wouldn’t say we did throughout the whole game.”
The loss took away from a strong performance from Edwards. She struck out 12 Saints batters, pitching a complete game.
“She was phenomenal. She’s been phenomenal for us, she’s been our workhorse. We utilize her ... 98 percent of the time. I feel like for the past couple of games, she’s been locked-in,” Harris said. “She’s shown more emotion than not, which I think for her is a good thing. You couldn’t ask much more from her.”
Both teams tallied runs in the first inning before Lakeland exploded with four runs in the fourth. The Lakers had RBIs from Breanna Lovelace, Kylee Palmer, Makayla Mast and Chloe Gust to go up 5-1.
“We have a lot of really good hitters with good batting averages, and sometimes we see the ball, and it gets really big and we jump on the first pitch,” Harris said. “We talked a lot about pitch selection, finding the pitch we wanted to drive. We had a tight strike zone (Wednesday), so we were able to utilize the walks and pick pitches we wanted to hit.”
Dwenger scored its second run in the bottom of the fourth on an RBI from Garrett,
Lakeland re-gained a four-run lead on a solo home run in the top of the seventh by sophomore Kendall Moore.
Wednesday night stung for the Lakers, but Harris is confident the team will be back in a similar spot for years to come.
“It’s going to be bitter for a while. It’s going to be a hard pill to swallow, especially when you’re that close,” Harris said. “The fight and the drive that these kids have in the offseason is the best I’ve seen in my five years. I think that buy-in, especially with the younger girls who have been here the last couple of years, can show the new girls coming in, ‘This is what it takes to be this caliber of a team.’
“If we want to take that next step, we’ve got to continue that offseason workout.”
Austin Hough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN