By Josh Brown
TIPP CITY — Every time Troy pulled ahead, Tippecanoe fought right back.
But every time the Red Devils fought back, the Trojans retook control.
Back and forth Wednesday’s matchup went until a three-run sixth inning gave the Trojans a four-run lead, and though the Devils rallied one final time, reliever Natalie Henson got a called third strike with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh as the Troy softball team held on for a tense and thrilling 9-8 victory Wednesday at Tippecanoe Middle School.
It was the second straight game that came down to the final inning between the teams — last season, Tippecanoe won 4-3 in nine innings at Troy. And while Wednesday was the season opener for the Devils (0-1), Troy (1-1) began the new season with another one-run game, a 5-4 extra-innings loss at Wayne on Monday.
“We were happy to get our first win, and everyone contributed today,” Troy coach Dan Cain said. “After our game the other day at Wayne, we got up 4-0 there and then our defense kind of fell apart. Today, we played better defensively. They (Tippecanoe) just hit the ball.”
That was especially true in the final two innings. With Troy up 9-5 in the bottom of the sixth, Maddie Gibler hit her second homer of the day, a two-run bomb that got the Devils back to within one. And in the seventh, Tippecanoe strung together four straight one-out hits — three to load the bases and then an RBI single by Rachel Rusk — to make it a one-run game. But substitute first baseman Taylor Stookey made a heads-up play on a grounder, throwing home for the force for the second out of the inning.
“Taylor came in, got a couple at-bats and a hit. And today was the first time she’d even taken infield at first base,” Cain said. “That was a big play.”
It also brought up Gibbler once more.
“I thought ‘we got this,’” Tippecanoe coach Scott Sutton said. “I just told her to relax. We didn’t need a miracle or another homer, just a base hit.”
Henson put Gibbler in an 0-2 hole right away, forcing her to foul off a pair of pitches. Gibbler remained alive with two more foul balls. Henson got her to take the final pitch, though, and got a called third strike to end the game.
“I was not excited for who they had coming up with runners on base in that inning,” Cain said with a chuckle. “I didn’t necessarily want Nat to throw that pitch there with an 0-2 count, figured maybe we could waste a couple and maybe get her to chase, but it worked out well for us in the end.”
“Maddie’s a great kid,” Sutton said of Gibbler, who finished 2 for 5 with two homers and three RBIs. “She’s just out there having a ball and smiling. Even after she went down looking there, she’s still got a smile on her face. We were pleasantly surprised by the day she had — not that she can’t do it, but just that she hadn’t yet. She’s normally a good base hit-hitter, not a home run-hitter.”
There was plenty of hitting to go around on the day, though.
Camryn Moeller drove in the game’s first run for Troy in the top of the first with an RBI single, then Savannah Nelson — who hit a grand slam at Tippecanoe last season in a 7-1 Trojan win — led off the second inning with a solo blast to make it 2-0. Tippecanoe answered in the bottom of the second, though, taking advantage of a one-out walk and hit-by-pitch as Sierra Sutton ripped an RBI single up the middle, and the tying run scored on an errant throw to the plate on the play to make it a 2-2 game.
“What I liked was out resiliency,” Sutton said. “We battled back all day long. We had good hitting on our part, too, and (pitcher) Sierra (Sutton) battled through everything. We need to work on getting some two-strike pitches a little farther outside or out of the zone.”
Troy struck back immediately, though. With runners on first and third and one out in the top of the third, Henson hit an RBI single followed by a two-run single by Nelson — who finished the game 3 for 4 with a double, a homer and three RBIs — and the Trojans led 5-2.
“When we were patient and sat back on the ball, we hit it well,” Cain said. “And everyone got in and contributed somehow. We got it done, executed some bunts, ran the bases well and moved runners around.”
Gibbler hit the first of her two homers in the bottom of the third, a solo shot, then a two-out error and a wild pitch brought home a pair of runs in the bottom of the fourth to tie the score again at 5-5 and finish the day for Troy starter Moeller. The sophomore went four innings, striking out three, walking four, hitting a batter and giving up six hits and five runs, two earned.
The game didn’t stay tied for long, as a Nelson double in the top of the fifth led to an RBI single by Kearston Riley to give the lead back to Troy and put Moeller in line for the win. Nelson came on in the bottom of the fifth and set the Devils down in order, then RBI doubles by both Lauryn Rutan and Henson and another run scoring on an error gave the Trojans a 9-5 lead after the top of the sixth, setting up Gibbler’s two-run shot in the bottom of the inning and Tippecanoe’s rally in the seventh that fell just short.
“It was tough,” Sutton said. “But the girls battled. What killed us was errors. We probably had four of five errors in the field, plus a coaching error on me sending Kaity Stocker to third on a double and getting her thrown out. That one was on me. But Hailee Varvel made a great diving catch in left field in the sixth to keep us in it. We just came up short.”
The Trojans travel to Fairmont Thursday — weather permitting — while Tippecanoe travels to Waynesville Saturday.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.