PENDLETON — Jason Stewart looked back at the scoreboard twice. It was difficult to digest. The emotions the Greenfield-Central head coach and his players nearby sharing hugs and tears exchanged had nothing to do with the numbers still illuminating in the distance.
After the Cougars lost 5-1 in the Class 4A Sectional 9 championship to host Pendleton Heights at Legends Field on Wednesday night, everyone asked the same question.
What could have been?
From the first day of practice this spring, the Cougars faced adversity. The unexpected reversal of fortune hit hard after setting a program record for wins in a single season at 27-5 while winning the 2015 sectional title against Pendleton Heights 4-3.
The biggest blow came in the offseason as senior ace pitcher Darcie Huber was projected to miss the first few weeks after elbow surgery in January. Her pitching availability was doubtful after she compiled a 20-2 record as a junior, logging a 1.15 ERA and 211 strikeouts over 23 appearances.
What followed was revolving door of injuries that slowed the team’s chemistry and hamstrung them from building momentum.
“Honestly, being here and playing so well and everyone gelling finally after the injuries earlier this season, and overcoming all of it to be on the field tonight was good,” Huber said. “To not pull through was bittersweet. Having everyone here and ready to play was an achievement.”
Not that the Cougars didn’t succeed. Ranked as high as fifth in the state polls, Greenfield-Central opened the year 10-0, but stretches of losing spanned large chucks of time.
Then, it clicked, and at the right time. Winning four in a row, the Cougars returned to the point they had hoped since falling to Roncalli 5-1 in the regional a year ago.
In their first at-bat on Wednesday, with Huber at the plate, they seemed destined to achieve their goal of a sectional repeat as the Ball State recruit crushed a first-pitch offering from Audrey Ricker over the left-field fence.
Morganne Denny, who entered the championship game hitting .521, followed with a double to left-center field.
“I started off with the home run and Morganne had a solid shot, and I thought we’re set,” Huber said. “And then from there, we couldn’t move the runner and it kept happening.”
The Cougars put runners in scoring position seven times — every time with one out — but Ricker and the Arabians had an answer.
In the end, the Arabians provided the final retort with a four-run top of the seventh, plating two runs on passed balls and two more on suicide squeezes that worked for hits.
“We lost that game a long time before the seventh,” Stewart said. “We left too many runners on base, and that’s what has killed us all season. We never got the pressure back on them when we should have.”
Pendleton Heights tied the game in the top of the fourth 1-1 on an RBI double by Jade Mollenkopf.
Facing Huber and Michaela Ballman, which split time inside the pitcher’s circle all night for the Cougars, the Arabians stranded four runners in scoring position before the seventh.
Huber limited the Arabians to two hits and the defense turned two key double plays with one in the third and another with a runner at third in the sixth.
The Cougars faced a similar pattern despite Huber going 3-for-4 in the leadoff spot. Denny was 3-for-3 with two doubles in the two hole. The rest of the lineup produced one hit from Codey Miller in the sixth.
Greenfield-Central left nine runners on base overall.
“It wasn’t only the big hit, we couldn’t find the hit, solid contact, that was the most frustrating part,” Huber said. “There wasn’t even a chance.”
Ricker, who pitched the Arabians to a 3-2 win during the team’s regular-season Hoosier Heritage Conference meeting, tossed seven innings for the win. She struck out seven, walked two and surrendered one earned run.
Ballman was charged with the loss during Arabians’ four-hit seventh with the go-ahead run scoring on a passed ball as the Cougars had three in the frame.
“We’ve been through so much this year. With this game, the whole season, we’ve had so many people hurt, it was crazy,” Ballman said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t happen even when you pull together and play your heart out.”
Greenfield-Central finished the year with a 17-10 record but also slugged a school record 30 home runs, a new mark for the most in a single season.
“I’m proud of the effort to get to this point, but I’m disappointed in the fact that they weren’t really able to reach their potential because of everything that happened,” Stewart said. “We were really looking forward to this season, and it never got to be what it could have been.”
Class 4 Sectional 9
Pendleton Heights 5, Greenfield-Central 1
LP: Michaela Ballman WP: Audrey Ricker
HR: Darcie Huber (GC). 2B: Lauren Landes, Jade Mollenkopf (PH); Morganne Denny 2 (GC).
Noteables: Huber 3-4, RBI, run; M. Denny 3-3, SB (GC); Kelsey Sturgeon 2-4, RBI; J. Mollenkopf 2-4, RBI.