FRANKLIN — “Competitive Greatness.”
The phrase is imprinted on the back of New Palestine softball’s team shirts.
And since they were hitless through four innings, trailed 5-0 after five frames and were down to their last out in the seventh, the Class 4A No. 6 Dragons needed every ounce of positive energy from their team motto to rally for a thrilling 7-5 victory over Center Grove in the Sectional 13 semifinals Tuesday at Franklin.
For the eighth consecutive season, NP (24-3) is in the sectional finals. Franklin (16-9) is the lone squad standing between the red and white and its first sectional crown since 2011. First pitch of tonight’s Sectional 13 championship game is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
“We’ve talked about it all year, competitive greatness. That’s being our best when we have to be our best. That’s what we’ve talked about,” said Dragons’ coach Ed Marcum, whose team has now won 10 straight.
“We didn’t show much competitive greatness the first five innings. But, they started believing in themselves, and they knew they could do it. They rallied together. It was a great team win.
In the two teams’ first meeting on April 30, Marcum’s crew blew a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh to fall 4-3.
“It took everyone from the people on the bench, the people in the dugout and it carried all the way through the field and the coaching staff,” Marcum said Tuesday. “We believed, and they did a nice job of getting the key hits when they had to have them.”
Down 5-4, Elisha Barker led off the top of the seventh with a single for NP. Following a fielder’s choice and a flyout, the Dragons were one out away from elimination.
Just as she did in the sixth inning to facilitate NP’s comeback, Brittany Duncan wouldn’t let her squad die. The junior center fielder shot a liner into center, plating Tara Morey – pinch running for Barker – to tie the game. Issy Hoyt and Adie Lorsung followed with RBI singles, and suddenly the Dragons found themselves leading 7-5 entering the bottom of seven.
Barker, who came on for starter Kaylin McMurray with one out in the fifth, bookended two flyouts around a strikeout to close out the contest.
Marcum likened Barker – who garnered her 10th win on the season Tuesday to go along with 10 saves and an ERA of 1.78 entering the game – to a certain Cincinnati Reds’ closer who routinely touches 100mph with his fastball.
“She’s kind of our Aroldis Chapman,” Marcum said. “We bring her in to close the games at the end. I can’t say enough about her.”
It wasn’t pretty through the first five innings for NP.
Maddie London’s RBI single put Center Grove up 1-0 in the second, but the damage through the first three frames could have been far worse for the Dragons. The Trojans advanced a runner to at least second base in each of the first three innings – including loading the bases in the third with some assistance from a pair of NP errors – but failed to break the game open.
After the Dragons couldn’t manufacture a run when Abby O’Connor notched her squad’s first hit of the game in the top of the fifth, Center Grove finally broke through in the home half of the fifth, scoring four runs on two hits. Two additional NP errors aided the big inning, which put the Trojans up 5-0.
The four errors tied a season high for the Dragons, who also committed four miscues in an April 9 loss to Whiteland and a May 8 victory over Greenfield-Central.
“The game seemed to be a little bigger than us early,” Marcum said. “Uncharacteristic, but like I said, they just stuck with it and we finally got it going by playing the way we know how to play.”
With its season on the ropes, NP answered in the sixth, with Addi Clouse, Markie Wood, Duncan and Hoyt reaching on a double, single, double and an error to bring NP within 5-3. O’Connor’s RBI single made the score 5-4.
Notes: The Sectional 13 winner hosts the Columbus North Sectional victor in a one-game regional Tuesday . … New Palestine was deprived of a third straight Sectional 13 championship matchup with Franklin Central when the Flashes (21-4) fell to the Grizzly Cubs 4-1 in the first semifinal Tuesday. FC beat NP 10-1 and 4-0 and the past two Sectional 13 title games. … Center Grove (20-8) started its season 1-5, but finished its campaign winners of 19 out of 22. … Trojan starter Abbey Pratt struck out nine. … Franklin beat Whiteland 2-0 Monday.
Class 4A Sectional 13 Semifinal
At Franklin, Tuesday
New Palestine 7, Center Grove 5
SCORE BY INNINGS R H E
NP (24-3) 000 004 3 — 7 10 4
CG (20-8) 010 040 0 — 5 6 3
WP: Barker (10-1).
LP: Hammill (7-2).
NP: Duncan 2 hits, 2B, 2 RBI, 2 R; Hoyt RBI 1B, R; O'Connor 2 hits, RBI; Barker hit, win.
CG: Boyer 2 BB, R; Baker 2 hits, R; Hammill 2 hits, 2 RBI, London 2 hits, 2 RBI; Pratt 9 K.