NEW PALESTINE — Averaging more than 20 runs per game between them, softball powers New Palestine and Center Grove squared off Wednesday in what promised to be a slugfest.
Instead, it was the defense of the Class 4A No. 6-ranked Trojans that proved to be a difference maker in their 3-1 win against the top-ranked Dragons.
“We both can hit the ball a ton,” Center Grove coach Russ Milligan said. “By God, they made some phenomenal defensive plays, or we score at least two more. And we made some phenomenal defensive plays, or they score a lot more than one. When all else fails, you have to rely on your defense.”
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Center Grove starter Abbey Pratt (8-1) went the distance, keeping the host Dragons — batting a collective .432 entering the game — to six hits. Pratt, though, notched only two strikeouts. The Trojans’ defense retired the remainder of the New Palestine stalwarts, with Center Grove third baseman Victoria Boyer making a number of nifty stops.
The Trojans (13-1) took a 2-1 lead into the top of the fifth inning via a Mallory Baker solo home run in the first and three hits in the third off of New Palestine starter Kaylin McMurray (8-1).
Against New Palestine reliever Elisha Barker, the visitors threatened to break the game open in the fifth inning, loading the bases with one out. Center Grove exited the inning with only one run, leaving the bases full, as they did in the first inning.
All told, the Trojans stranded 11 runners.
The only inning in which Center Grove didn’t leave a runner on base was the third, thanks to a New Palestine double play that included throwing a runner out at the plate, then at second base.
“Both teams showed up to play defense, I was just glad we ended up on the winning side of it,” Milligan said. “I’m mad about us leaving so many runners on, swinging at some bad pitches, but I’m sure Ed feels the same way.”
Indeed, New Palestine coach Ed Marcum said it was a matter of missed opportunities for his Dragons (12-2), who have now lost two straight games after national statistical service MaxPreps listed his club among the top 25 in the nation.
New Palestine loaded the bases in the fifth on a Center Grove infield error, a walk and an Abby Davis single. Two straight pop-ups kept the Dragons scoreless in the frame, and they finished the possible sectional preview with eight runners left on base.
“We got in good situations and we swung at bad pitches,” Marcum said. “(Pratt) did a nice job of moving it around. We were very impatient. When it was our biggest at-bats, when we needed it the most, we just weren’t patient enough.”
The Dragons’ lone run came in the second inning, following a leadoff double by Ashley Prange, who later scored on a groundout by Mary Crumlin.
The clubs could meet again in late May when the Trojans host Sectional 13.
“It will be a brand new ballgame,” Milligan said. “We beat Franklin Central (another sectional foe) this week, and they’re awesome. We beat New Pal, and they’re awesome. But, guess what? If we played those teams tomorrow, we could lose to both of them.”
Center Grove will return to action Tuesday at Perry Meridian.
The Dragons will try to halt their two-game skid tonight against Hoosier Heritage Conference rival Shelbyville. HHC contender Pendleton Heights ended New Palestine’s 12-game season-opening win streak on Monday, 5-4.
“At times you start reading your press clippings, and the pressure mounts,” Marcum said. “We’ve just got to get refocused. We need to make sure we come out and play like we know how to play.
“This has been a tough week. When you’re kind of as high as what we were and then you come out and kind of fall on your face here, it’s something that we have to overcome. And I have to do a better job of getting my team ready.”