Third Time’s the Charm: Royals breakthrough, beat rival Patriots for regional title

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Eastern Hancock players celebrate after defeating rival Union County in the Class 2A Regional 21 championship game at Eastern Hancock High School on Tuesday, May 31, 2022. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not this time.

A year ago, the Eastern Hancock Royals were forced to watch from the dugout, as Union County celebrated its third regional title all time and second straight at their expense.

On Tuesday, it was payback time, and the unranked host Royals seized their moment with clutch plays at every turn to upset 11th-ranked Union County, 3-2, at home for the Class 2A Regional 21 championship.

Their regional meeting marked the two program’s third consecutive since 2019 with Eastern Hancock coming up short twice prior — not anymore.

Royals’ junior ace pitcher Madison Stephens couldn’t quite find the words after she threw a complete-game, four-hitter for the win.

Junior right fielder Emma Bolding let her glove do the talking with two crucial catches for outs in the top of the sixth, as Eastern Hancock clung to a one-run lead and Union County sent their power-hitting duo to the plate.

Eastern Hancock junior Kaylee Kline made the most noise, however, blasting a pair of solo home runs in both the bottom of the second and the fourth that proved the difference en route to the Royals first regional since 2016.

“It’s amazing. They’re our biggest rivals, and it feels amazing to beat them, even if it was by one,” Kline said. “I’m like shaking because I’m so excited. I was shaking throughout the entire game. I’m pumped.”

The Royals found a way to stay steady across the diamond, and it paved their way toward avenging the past and claiming their third regional title all time (2013 and 2016).

A seven-time sectional championship team the past 12 years, the Royals recently reached the regional in two of the past three years only to lose to Union County. Eastern Hancock was upended, 7-3, in 2019 before losing the 2020 season due to COVID-19. Last year, the Royals beat the Patriots twice during the regular season, but host Union County had the final say at regional, winning 4-2.

Unlike their past two regional games, the Royals scored first behind Kline’s eighth home run of the season.

Kline hit the Royals’ walk-off single to run-rule Triton Central, 10-0, during Saturday’s Sectional 42 championship game, and in the bottom of the second against Union County, she put her team at ease.

With an 0-1 count, Kline crushed a two-out, solo home run that cleared the right-center field fence for her 28th RBI.

“I was feeling really good because that put us on the board, and I knew it was going to be a really low-scoring game,” Kline said. “Any run on the board was so amazing and for us to be ahead at that time, it was a pick-me-up.”

In the circle, Stephens kept the Patriots (26-3) at bay through the first three innings, retiring seven straight after giving up a single to senior Sophia Knock (2-for-3), a Longwood University commit.

Knock entered the regional with a team-leading 54 RBI and a .651 batting average, posing a threat every time she stepped up to hit.

The Royals (21-4-1) countered with power and hard-contact swings, taking a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the third, as senior Caroline Stapleton, a University of Southern Indiana recruit, bounced a two-out single to center field.

Sophomore Brooklyn Willis followed Stapleton with an RBI single to center field that gave Eastern Hancock a 2-0 lead before the Patriots could respond.

Sophomore Annalea Adams cut the deficit 2-1 with a first-pitch home run over the left field wall in the top of the fourth. After Knock reached base with a single in the next at-bat, Stephens struck out one and induced a routine ground out, but a throwing error put two runners in scoring position for Union County.

A sacrifice bunt by Faith Richardson scored Knock from third and tied the game 2-2 before Stephens got Brooke Fields to pop up to Royals’ third baseman Taylor Koch to end the inning.

The Royals nearly caught Knock at home, but the throw to the plate was just off target.

That would be the last imperfection for the Royals.

“I knew it was going to be a low-scoring game with (Chloe) Greene in the circle for them, so what we had to do was make sure we kept them at minimal runs,” Eastern Hancock head coach Terry Stephens said. “One of those runs was my fault. I know not to throw Adams on the inside. I was getting too cute, and of course, she made us pay for it. The other one, you take our error out of there, and a good throw back at home also, and we give up just that one run. But, our defense behind Madison played perfect other than that one throw.”

Madison Stephens retired another seven straight after Union County’s two-run fourth, and Kline made it a short-lived deadlock.

With one out in the bottom of the fourth, Kline crushed her ninth home run of the season that cleared the left-center field fence.

“I was surprised by my second one,” Kline admitted. “I was just trying to go in there relaxed. I felt really confident in myself going in. I worked a lot and I felt really good going up to the plate. I was just looking for a pitch to hit pretty much.”

Her first home run came off a speed pitch. The second was a shoe-string change-up that she sent soaring off her bat to put the Royals back on top.

“I’m so proud of her. She had two home runs. She’s just amazing. I can’t say enough about her. She’s my best friend and she’s amazing at everything she does,” Madison Stephens said. “Those catches (by Emma), they swayed the energy back our way. It made us even more fired up and realized we really want this win and we’re going to get it.”

Bolding sat down both Adams and Knock in order in the top of the sixth, diving for her first catch and chasing down another pop up in foul territory down the first-base line.

Madison Stephens ended the inning with another pop up to center field. The left-hander struck out six, didn’t walk a single batter and scattered all four of her hits.

“That is the best game Madison has ever pitched,” said Terry Stephens, Madison’s father. “It wasn’t about strikeouts. Her speed won’t blow by everybody, but if she locates, normally we can miss the fat part of the bat and our defense will be there to back her up. And, they were.”

Bolding’s defense was sparked two innings beforehand.

“If I’m being honest here, I was really mad because I struck out looking (in the fourth),” Bolding laughed. “I was mad in the outfield, and I guess that just focused me more, and I played it off like it was a routine play. I was celebrating inside. There has to be no doubt in a game like this when you dive for a catch.”

Oddly enough, Terry Stephens and his coaching staff considered moving Bolding to left field while shifting Stapleton from center to right and Willis from left to center.

They changed their mind hours before the first pitch.

“Monster catches against their two beasts. And, then Kline coming up and hitting the two home runs,” Terry Stephens said. “Whatever Kline is eating we’re going to pass that around to the entire team.”

They’ll want to pack their lunch for the Forest Park Semistate on Saturday where they will face eighth-ranked North Posey (22-1) in the semifinal at 11 a.m. with the championship game scheduled for 7 p.m.

“This is very big for us. We wanted to do it last year. Not that this was the last chance to get it, but for the seniors it was their last chance, and it means a lot to them and to the whole team as well,” Emma Bolding said. “We have some friends over on the Union County team, and they were hyping themselves up, saying it was their house. We just wanted to shove it in their face.”

The Royals made sure to celebrate on their home field with fireworks set off in the background after Kline caught the final out, a foul ball behind home plate on the first pitch to Bailey Matthews.

“You work your whole life for this moment, and then it’s here. It feels amazing and this team with the seniors, I love them, they deserve this so much,” Madison Stephens said. “The whole team deserves this. We would not have won this game without everyone.”

Eastern Hancock 3, Union County 2

Union County (26-3);000;200;0;—;2;4;1

Eastern Hancock (21-4-1);011;100;x;—;3;5;1

HR: Annalea Adams (UC); Kaylee Kline 2 (EH).

WP: Madison Stephens (7.0 IP, 4 H, 6 K, 0 BB, 2 R, 4 ER). LP: Chloe Greene (6.0 IP, 5 H, 4 K, 2 BB, 3 R, 3 ER).

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