Royals take another step, return to sectional finals

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Eastern Hancock’s Brooklyn Willis makes contact against Heritage Christian during the Class 2A Sectional 42 semifinals at Eastern Hancock on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Richard Sitler/Daily Reporter)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — She wasn’t quite perfect, but Eastern Hancock junior ace Madison Stephens was nearly flawless.

With a perfect game already to her credit this season, Stephens scattered two hits and struck out 10 during the Class 2A Sectional 42 semifinals against Heritage Christian, while the Royals’ lineup executed the perfect game plan.

The Royals (19-4-1) plated four momentum-building runs in the bottom of the first and posted five extra-base hits overall to run-rule the Eagles (12-13) in five-innings, 11-0, at home and advance into today’s sectional final for a shot at three straight titles.

Eastern Hancock will face Triton Central for the Sectional 42 title at 5:30 p.m. today in pursuit of a seventh championship all time and a fifth in seven years.

“At the beginning of the season, we talked about it. We said, we’re not talking about personal records. We’re not talking about individual records. We’re going to talk about team records and set the same goals,” Eastern Hancock head coach Terry Stephens said.

“We wanted to win all of our (Mid-Eastern Conference) games, and every other game besides those were considered scrimmages until we got to the state tournament. Now that we’re here, the next goal is to hopefully win the sectional, and then we’ll go from there.”

This month, the Royals went unbeaten in the MEC at 8-0 to win a third consecutive team title.

Now, they’re one more win away from a sectional trio with titles seized in 2019 and 2021 — and no state tournament in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Royals made their championship intentions know immediately against the Eagles during the sectional semifinals, as Stephens struck out six of the first 11 batters she faced.

The left-hander retired seven straight at one point and sat down the last five Eagles that stepped up to the plate.

“Don’t tell her this, but she’s a good pitcher,” EH catcher Kaylee Kline whispered. “She pitched amazing. She did pretty much what we needed her to do. I expected nothing less from her.”

Stephens threw a five-inning, perfect game on April 28 against conference foe Wapahani with eight strikeouts at home during the Royals’ 10-0 shutout victory.

When the Royals played Heritage Christian on May 2 — winning 17-0 at home — Stephens had the night off, but she went to work to secure her team’s title-game berth.

“We knew if we came out strong, then that was definitely intimidating to any team,” Madison Stephens said. “I knew I had to pitch my best. After Knightstown last night, I knew there were things I wanted to work on, so I came out and worked on those things and I definitely think I did better than last night.”

In the quarterfinals on Monday, Stephens allowed two hits, walked three and struck out six as the Royals won by run-rule 21-3 over Knightstown.

She didn’t allow a single free pass against the Eagles and both hits surrendered were singles in the top of the second and fourth.

“Compared to last night, her control was a little bit better. That one hit she gave up (in the fourth), she gets mad at me because like I told her, we have to work on some pitches. She just threw two bad change-ups, so I was calling for another one until we got it right,” said Terry Stephens, Madison’s father. “I know the girl got a base hit off of it, but we need that pitch. She can get frustrated with me on certain things like that.”

The Royals’ bats provided Madison Stephens with ample run support.

Caroline Stapleton (2-for-2, three runs) led off the bottom of the first with a double, and scored the game’s first run on a Brooklyn Wills (2-for-3) double in the next at-bat.

From there, the Royals used two Eagles errors and 10 hits to score all 11 runs in the first three frames.

Willis drove in two runs and added a triple in the second inning. Emma Bolding (1-for-3) lined a single in the second to plate a pair of runs, while Kline finished 2-for-3 with an RBI double in the second and a towering solo home run to cap a four-run first inning.

“I started the season off with an injury, but I feel great now. I worked my way back up, and then I kind of got back down a little bit, but I have a good team backing me, so I got back up there,” Kline said.

Kline’s sixth home run of the season came against Eagles’ ace Alayna Tesner, who carried an 8-7 record with 194 strikeouts in 105.1 innings.

Tesner struck out one against the Royals, walked three and didn’t have a 1-2-3 frame until the bottom of the fourth.

“The nice thing about travel ball is you get a scouting report already. We have girls that have faced her, and they told everyone what to expect. They knew she would be up in the zone a little bit to see if we would chase it,” Terry Stephens said. “Watching her warm up, she curved the ball and tried to hit that outside a little bit. It’s nothing these girls hadn’t seen before, but they did alright.”

Sammie Bolding went 1-for-2 for the Royals with a RBI to score the final run in the third with a single. Grace Stapleton was 1-for-1 with two runs scored — both on Eagles errors.

“We’re pretty focused. We went out there not thinking too much about her strikeouts. We knew we could hit her because we are a good team,” Kline said.

Tonight, the Royals will have their opportunity to technically win back-to-back sectional titles for a second time in program history and return to the regional, which they host this time around.

Eastern Hancock lost to Union County, 4-2, at regional on the road to end their 27-win campaign in 2021.

“Last year, we lost at regional, and we didn’t play our best that game, so I think if we do win tomorrow, we’re all going to be very determined to hopefully win regional and keep on going,” Madison Stephens said.

Eastern Hancock 11, Heritage Christian 0

Heritage Christian (12-13);000;00;—;0;2;3

Eastern Hancock (19-4-1);452;0x;—;11;9;0

HR: Kaylee Kline (EH). 3B: Brooklyn Willis (EH). 2B: Caroline Stapleton, Brooklyn Willis, Kaylee Kline (EH).

WP: Madison Stephens (5.0 IP, 2 H, 10 K, 0 BB, 0 R, 0 ER). LP: Alayna Tesnar (4.0 IP, 9 H, 1 K, 3 BB, 11 R, 7 ER).