Worth the Wait: Royals win third straight sectional crown

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Kaylee Stewart crosses home plate to give Eastern Hancock the winning run 10-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning against Triton Central during the Class 2A Sectional 42 final at Eastern Hancock on Saturday, May 28, 2022.

Richard Sitler | Daily Reporter

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Eastern Hancock Royals had to wait three extra days. They needed eight more runs and 10 additional hits to complete their sectional title defense Saturday, including a walk-off single to win a fifth-straight game by run-rule.

However, all it really took was one pitch from ace Madison Stephens to set the tone.

Resuming their Class 2A Sectional 42 title game against Triton Central, up 2-0, after play was halted on Wednesday due to rain, the host Royals, at last, hoisted the championship trophy — for a third consecutive season.

Stephens sparked the defending champion Royals with a first-pitch strike to begin the game — and to end the top of the fourth — while the bats came to life, plating a quick four in the fourth, en route to a 10-0 run-rule of the Tigers in six innings.

A decisive three-run bottom of the sixth ended the game, as Eastern Hancock junior Kaylee Kline laced a single into left field that drove in senior Kaylee Stewart from third base with runners on the corners.

“When we took off those days and we only had two runs, I was a little bit more stressed coming in, but as soon as we got that first pitch, first inning, one-pitch strikeout, that just pumped us up,” Kline said. “We felt like we got this.”

The Royals (20-4-1) were limited to four hits and two runs through the first three frames played on Wednesday.

For the second act, the Royals went to work, dropping down four bunts in the bottom of the fourth, driving in three runs and capitalizing on an error for another run.

A second Triton Central error scored Stewart in the bottom of the fifth before a Brooklyn Willis single, a Sammie Bolding walk (and a double steal) followed by a Stewart RBI single and an Emma Bolding base hit in the sixth put the spotlight on Kline.

“It was stressful,” Kline said. “I swung at everything. I didn’t want to get called out, so I decided I was going to swing at everything.”

She connected with an 0-2 count for her 27th RBI of the season and 25th hit. Stewart, a Franklin College commit, stomped on home plate and celebrated immediately afterwards.

The championship marks Eastern Hancock’s third since 2019 (no season in 2020 due to COVID-19) and seventh overall.

For the seniors, they’ve never experienced a softball season without a sectional title.

“This one is extra special because it’s my last year, and we’re just going to keep fighting until the end,” Royals senior Caroline Stapleton said. “It was definitely nerve-racking to think, we’re only up 2-0 and having to wait. We needed to come out and jump on them, so a lot of nerves were building up over the past few days. Now, that it’s over, we’re definitely relieved.”

Stapleton laid down a sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the fourth to give the Royals a 6-0 lead and finished the game 2-for-4 with a double, a run scored and an RBI.

Brooklyn Willis went 2-for-4 with a double. Stewart was 2-for-3 with two RBI. Bolding finished 1-for-3 with two runs and an RBI. Emma Bolding had two hits. Kline was 2-for-4, while both Sydni Bednarski and Grace Stapleton each drove in runs.

The Royals outscored their sectional competition 42-3 with three consecutive postseason, run-rule wins over Knightstown, 21-3, in the quarterfinals and Heritage Christian, 11-0, in the semifinals on Tuesday.

Stephens pitched six innings with three hits allowed, one walk and eight strikeouts in the title game while technically carrying a no-hitter for three days.

On Wednesday, she retired the first 11 batters she faced. On Saturday, she sat down two in a row to start and four consecutive through the top of the fifth and sixth innings.

“It was pretty surreal, honestly. I’ve never had a no-hitter go that long, but they hit the ball today, so it wasn’t surprising. They’re a pretty good team, but we were able to hold them to zero, so I’m pretty proud of my team,” Madison Stephens said.

The shutout was Eastern Hancock’s 11th this season and the 19th time the team has reached double figures in runs scored.

As a group, the Royals have scored 303 runs and driven in 233, which aren’t quite school records, but that hasn’t been the focus this season.

In 2021, the Royals set 10 single-season team records, including for home runs at 51, They rewrote program marks with seven individual single-season records and one career record for triples by University of Southern Indiana recruit Caroline Stapleton.

Stapleton now holds the program’s career-record for triples (24), runs scored at 134 (Jordan Pierson, 129 from 2013-16) and stolen bases at 90 (Pierson, 59).

The Royals won a single-season record 27 games in 2021, but they lost to Union County in the regional title game, 4-2, on the road.

Today, they will get a chance to avenge the loss, hosting the regional against Union County (26-2) at 6 p.m.

“Last year, we only lost one regular-season game, and of course, we almost felt unbeatable. I think that was because we were so focused on beating every record, but this year, we just want to win as a team,” Madison Stephens said. “We’re not focusing on ourselves, just more of us as a team.”

The team is in line to accomplish all of it — wins and records — eyeing a potential single-season record in batting average and four overall individual career-records with two individual single-season marks as well.

A regional title would signify the team’s first since 2016 and third all time.

“It means a lot to get another chance. We definitely need to come out with a good mindset and lots of positivity. It’s definitely a rivalry where we want to be the winners,” Caroline Stapleton said. “And being home, it’s a lot more personal for us because no one want to end on their home turf. It’s our house, so we have to go.”

On Saturday, fireworks were launched into the sky beyond the outfield fence as the Royals cheered on each other at home plate.

They’d like to share that feeling one more time.

“That was a team win. Pitching, defense and we gave up three hits, but I’m pretty sure not a single one of them left the infield. Those are the team stat we want to talk about, the defense, the all-around hitting, the base running and all the kind of stuff we’re doing unselfishly for our team,” EH head coach Terry Stephens said. “It got us three in a row. For regional, we just have to come out and play loose.”

Eastern Hancock 10, Triton Central 0

Triton Central (11-10);000;000;—;0;3;3

Eastern Hancock (20-4-1);200;413;—;10;14;0

2B: Caroline Stapleton, Emma Bolding, Brooklyn Willis (EH).

WP: Madison Stephens (6.0 IP, 3 H, 8 K, 1 BB, 0 R, 0 ER). LP: Lillian Fillippinie (5.0 IP, 14 H, 4 K, 3 BB, 10 R, 9 ER).