LIBERTY — Eastern Hancock’s softball team suffered two types of disappointments in Wednesday’s heartbreaking 6-5 loss to Union County, in eight innings, for the championship of Class 2A Sectional 41.
There was the obvious disappointment of having a very promising seasoning come to an end. Eastern Hancock (21-7) came into the game ranked No. 9 in Class 2A. Union County (21-4), is No. 10.
But the disappointment that may even override a season-ending loss was the disappointment of not playing to the best of their abilities in such a big ballgame.
“We didn’t come to play, you could tell by the way we started the game,” Eastern Hancock coach Terry Stephens said after the loss. “We got out-played mentally, out-coached. We didn’t show up to play. Not to take anything away from Union County, but just the little things we didn’t do well cost us runs.
The game had numerous lead changes, but the host Patriots got the last one.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Whitney King was hit by a pitch. She went to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a single to left field by Mackinzey Carter.
Eastern Hancock led 1-0 after two innings, 3-2 in the middle of the fifth and tied it 5-5, with a run each in the sixth and seventh innings, but there were other opportunities.
In the first inning, Brooklyn Willis reached on a two-base error, but consecutive strikeouts and a pop up to end the frame left the Royals scoreless. Seven of the eight Royals at-bats ended either in a pop out or a strikeout. Union County pitcher Bailey Mathews had 10 strikeouts.
“It’s frustrating, honestly,” Eastern Hancock senior catcher Kaylee Kline said. “Going back and forth and we were not hitting like we should. If we were hitting, we would have had that ballgame, for sure. These games are tough.”
“We watched the video (from our regular season game against Union County) and 90 percent of the pitches were inside,” coach Stephens said. “We just didn’t adapt well to that. All of those dinks and bloops were inside pitches. Every at-bat we were doing the same thing. We certainly helped them.”
The Royals took a 1-0 lead in the second when Grace Stapleton doubled and scored on a throwing error.
Union County tied it 1-1 on a solo home run from leadoff hitter Ally Gray. The Patriots put together three singles in the fourth inning to take a 2-1 lead.
They got the hits off Eastern Hancock starting pitcher Madison Stephens, who was not at full strength after the first inning.
A sharp line drive up the middle by Union County’s AnnaLea Adams went off Stephens left (pitching) hand. She remained in the game, but coach Stephens said he thought her velocity dropped after the injury. She was relieved by Tatem Adams in the fifth inning.
A two-run home run by Eastern Hancock junior Sammie Bolding in the fifth gave the Royals the lead back, 3-2. It was short-lived as UC catcher Shelby Hill hit a three-run shot in the bottom half of the frame. Hill was the last batter Madison Stephens faced.
The Royals still kept battling. Kline hit a solo homer in the sixth to cut it to 5-4. It was her fourth home run of the sectional. She hit two Monday in a first-round game against Shenandoah and added another on Tuesday in the semifinal win over Northeastern.
Down 5-4 in the seventh, Willis hit a one-out double. Bolding was intentionally walked and both moved up a base after a passed ball. A Lilli Ringer ground out scored Willis with the tying run.
“My team, they didn’t quit. They fought back,” coach Stephens said. “They went down fighting, there’s no doubt about that. I know they’re disappointed. Everybody likes to win, you just can’t beat yourself.”
It was the fourth straight season Eastern Hancock and Union County met in a postseason championship game.
The previous three were all in regional title contests. This is the first year the teams have been in the same sectional. Union County, which advanced to the Class 2A Final 4 in 2019 and 2021 have won three of the four. Eastern Hancock beat Union County in last year’s regional championship.
“It’s going to take a while,” Kline said of soaking in another strong year for the team, which included winning 21 games, were state ranked and were Mid-Eastern Conference champions. “The past three years we’ve not lost in the sectional. This year we expected to go farther.”
Union County 6, Eastern Hancock 5 (8 innings)
Eastern Hancock (21-7);010;021;10; — ;5;8;0
Union County (21-4);001;130;01; — ;6;9;3
Madison Stephens, Tatem Adams (5) and Kaylee Kline. Bailey Mathews and Shelby Hill. 2B: EH – Brooklyn Willis, Grace Stapleton; UC – Ally Gray. HR: EH – Kline (9), Sammie Bolding (15). UC – Gray (2), Hill (10). WP: Mathews (17-3). LP: Adams (3-2).