By Josh Brown
CLAYTON — All season long, the Milton-Union softball team relied on its ability to score runs in bunches.
Monday, the Bulldogs simply couldn’t get it done in crunch time.
West Liberty-Salem — the No. 1 seed in the Division III sectional tournament — put together a six-run first inning to take control from the start against No. 2 Milton-Union, and though the Bulldogs chipped away at the deficit from there, they still left eight runners on base in a 9-5 loss in the sectional championship game Monday at Northmont High School.
Trailing 9-2 in the top of the fifth inning, Milton-Union (19-6) loaded the bases with no outs after three straight walks by West Liberty-Salem starter Kelsey Day — and with the No. 4, 5 and 6 hitters coming to the plate, too. But an RBI groundout by Kya Swartztrauber was all the Bulldogs could manage to scratch across the plate as a popup and a diving play on a hard lineout to short ended the threat.
“We left too many runners on base — we had the meat of the order coming up, and they just didn’t get it done,” Milton-Union coach Curt Scheafer said. “That meat has kind of been in a slump the last few games, and that worried me coming in. I’d hoped they would just swing their way out of it, but that didn’t happen.
“We had her (Day) worried in the fifth, but the meat of the order came up and just didn’t get it done. If we could have put the dagger in right there, I think we could have had it.”
In the end, the six-run first inning by the Tigers (21-1) made all the difference.
West Liberty-Salem strung together eight hits in the first inning, couple with one Bulldog error, and chased starting pitcher Olivia Brown after six batters and only 1-3 of an inning. Two-run singles by Maddie Estes and Dierdre McGill, as well as an RBI single by Hallie Strapp and an RBI groundout by Mady Stratton, staked the Tigers out to a big lead to start the game.
Still, Schaefer knew what his Bulldogs were capable of. The team, the second-leading run producing team in the Southwestern Buckeye League, scored 10 or more runs in its first 12 games this season and averaged well over double digits per game on the year.
“Nah, that six runs (made me angry), but I never thought we were out of it,” Schaefer said. “I knew as long as our defense tightened up a bit, which it did, we could chip away. We just didn’t take care of the ball in that first inning. If we take care of the ball there, we’re in the lead at the end.”
Madison Jones reached on an error and Lizzie Oaks hit a one-out single to start the top of the second, then, after the runners were bunted to second and third by Hannah Oaks, an error off the bat of Mercedes Farmer put the Bulldogs’ first run on the board. Bree Nevels followed with an RBI single to make it a 6-2 game, but Day got a strikeout to leave two runners stranded.
Farmer, who entered in relief of Brown in the middle of the first, struck out the side in the second to keep the Bulldogs in it, but the Tigers put together a three-run third inning to extend the lead. McGill hit an RBI double and Day ripped a two-run single up the middle to give the Tigers a 9-2 lead — but that would be all Farmer allowed the rest of the way. She went 5 2-3 innings, allowing nine hits and four runs while striking out five.
“I can’t say enough about Mercedes coming in the way she did,” Schaefer said. “We started Olivia because she’s been throwing the inside pitch a little better, and that’s what we wanted to throw them. But they were ready for it, and that’s why we made the change. It’s not that she wasn’t throwing the ball well — they were just hitting it.
“Mercedes came in and did a great job. She always does a great job for me. She’s a great kid, and she will be missed — all of my seniors will be missed.”
After getting one run back in the fifth but leaving two more runners stranded, the Bulldogs scored two more in the sixth to cut the gap to four runs. Lizzie Oaks reached on an error, and a dropped fly ball off the bat of Hannah Oaks put runners on second and third to start the inning. Farmer hit an RBI groundout and Courtney Seevers added an RBI single, but Day got a pair of flyouts to end the inning and leave two more runners stranded and then she set down the side in order in the seventh to seal the win.
On the day, the heart of Milton-Union’s order was 0 for 12 with an RBI. Seevers was 2 for 3 with an RBI, Hannah Oaks doubled and Nevels, Swartztrauber and Farmer each had an RBI.
McGill was 3 for 4 with a double and three RBIs, Estes was 2 for 4 with a double and two RBIs and Day was 2 for 4 with two RBIs to lead the Tigers, who will face Madison in the district final later this week.
For Milton-Union, it was the end of a stellar season — one that included the team’s first SWBL Buckeye Division title since 2011.
“The girls had a great season, and no one can take that from them. It was one of the best Milton has had in a while,” Schaefer said. “We won our first league title since 2011. The schedule we put together is brutal and gets the girls ready for games like this one. And we’ve got 90 percent of the offense and defense coming back next year, so hopefully we’ll be a year stronger, wiser and older. Still, it’s always tough when it’s the last game to see those teary-eyed seniors. They’ll all be missed.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.