GREENFIELD — Jason Stewart stood in front of his softball team on Tuesday night and took a deep cleansing breath.
After what he described as “the most emotional back-and-forth game” of swings in his coaching career, Stewart wasn’t being melodramatic. He simply needed to catch his breath before he could uttered a word.
“This is the most proud I’ve been as a coach in 12 years,” Stewart addressed to his team. “Everything in the world went against us, but it didn’t phase us.
“No matter what, we were going to find a way to win.”
That’s exactly what his Class 4A Greenfield-Central Cougars did with their playoff lives on the line against rival Pendleton Heights during the Sectional 9 semifinals.
Up 3-0 early before trailing 5-3 after a crucial throwing error, the host Cougars never succumbed. They prevailed.
Scoring five-runs in the decisive bottom of the fifth inning, Greenfield-Central reclaimed the lead for good en route to a 9-5 win and earned a spot in sectional championship game against Anderson at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Stewart told his players to keep at it, he said.
“The softball gods kind of evened out. We had a couple of bad breaks, and they turned around and had a couple of drops. But I can’t say enough about my girls not quitting, every single one of them.”
The Cougars’ resolve was essential in their showdown with Arabians (20-9) as their 3-0 lead was cut down to 3-2 in the top of the third before evaporating 5-3 in an uncharacteristic fifth.
Unable to secure an out on two routine hits, an errant throw by senior Morganne Denny to first base on a sacrifice bunt by Savannah Hawhee turned the tide. The ball sailed along the first-base fence as all three runners, including Hawhee scored.
“I was just too amped up,” Denny remarked on the play. “Honestly, I was able to shake it off because I knew (my teammates) had my back. I knew we were going to get more runs.”
Down 5-3, the Cougars (21-6) responded in the bottom half of the fifth, applying pressure to Arabians’ ace Lauren Ricker (11-5) and the Pendleton Heights’ defense.
Kenzie Bradley led off the inning with an infield single out of the lineup’s nine hole. With one out Michaela Ballman blooped a single to shallow right field that dropped between two fielders, and Denny walked to load the bases.
“The best thing we did tonight was we made Ricker work her tail off. Even the outs she was getting were five, six, seven pitch outs,” Stewart said. “She had to throw a ton of pitches, and eventually we started hitting the mistakes.”
Ricker, who entered the game with a 2.77 ERA and 42 strikeouts, recorded seven punch outs, but she surrendered 10 hits, including four in the fifth.
Sam Kihega delivered the first blow with the bases packed, lining a grounder on a full count that was misplayed at third base and trickled to the outfield, scoring a pair to tie the game at 5-5.
An RBI single by Sydney Williams put the Cougars ahead 6-5 before the Arabians’ second error of the inning brought home another run. Emily Francis capped the comeback with an RBI single.
“It’s what good teams do. You have to be able to let stuff go,” Stewart said. “It’s hard to do in a big moment, but they did. They fought through the mistakes and turned around and hit them right back in the mouth.”
Denny called it payback after getting overwhelmed by the Arabians 15-7 on the same field during the regular season May 9.
The two programs ended the season 5-2 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference, tied for second overall and met in the sectional finals last year. The Cougars lost that game 5-1 at Pendleton Heights.
“The last two times we played them, I know we didn’t play our best, so I feel like it was our destiny to go out there and give everything we had,” said Denny, an IPFW recruit. “Even when we got down, we still played hard. We knew we could beat them, and I’m thrilled we did it.”
Denny finished 1-for-2 with a solo home run and two RBIs. Her shot over the left-center field wall was her 12th of the season, setting a single-season program record. She already owns the career home run and hits record at Greenfield-Central. She drove home the final run of the night in the seventh with a sacrifice fly to center.
Bradley finished the night 2-for-3. She lined an RBI double in the second inning to give the Cougars a 2-0 advantage.
Ballman earned the win, improving to 9-3 as she scattered nine hits and held the Arabians scoreless the final two innings.
“There was never a point where the girls thought that they were that much better than us,” Stewart said. “We’re not done yet.”
On Thursday, the Cougars will vie for their second sectional title in three years and eighth overall.
“The finish line is in sight,” Stewart told his team. “Finish.”
Greenfield-Central 9, Pendleton Heights 5
WP: Michaela Ballman (9-3) LP: Audrey Ricker (11-5)
HR: Morganne Denny (GC). 2B: Ballman, Sam Kihega, Kenzie Bradley (GC); Ricker (PH).
Notables: Lauren Landes 2-4, Ashley King 1-4, 2 RBIs, Olivia Conner 2-3, Ricker 1-3 (PH); Ballman 3-4, Denny 1-2, 2 RBI, S. Kihega 1-4, RBI, Sydney Williams 1-3, RBI, Bradley 2-3, RBI (GC).