GRANGER TWP. — The members of the Highland softball team thought there was nothing better than earning a share of the Suburban League American Conference title in walk-off fashion.
Until, that is, the Hornets had to do it twice.
In a crazy game that saw Highland players experience elation, heartbreak and even more elation in a matter of minutes, the Hornets defeated Tallmadge 2-1 Tuesday in a high-stakes, pressure-packed nine innings.
The highly unusual victory — full details are coming soon — left Highland (17-5) and Tallmadge (17-5) with 10-2 league marks. The Hornets won both head-to-head meetings, but that’s not used as a tiebreaker in the SL, so the schools will share the American Conference crown.
Highland won the conference outright a year ago, but it was how the 2017 Hornets became the first team to repeat that will be talked about at class reunions 10, 20 and even 50 years from now.
Cleanup hitter Autumn Chorba led off the bottom of the ninth with a single and was sacrificed to second by Brittany Fleischer. Morgan Belsole then delivered a shot that landed at the base of the center field fence, with Chorba chugging across home plate as a few Tallmadge fans picked up their lawn chairs and headed toward the parking lot.
While the Hornets were having a mosh pit-style celebration at the plate, however, the Blue Devils appealed and Chorba was called out for missing third base.
“I know I did (touch it), and that’s all that matters to me,” Chorba said. “In the end, we won as a team.”
Belsole, who had rounded first as Chorba was scoring, was awarded second base, bringing Sam Kainec to the plate with two outs.
With the crowd still abuzz over the appeal, Kainec sent a line drive down the right field line to plate Belsole with the game-winning run.
This time, there was no appeal and the Hornets were champions.
“I had to have confidence in my ability to get our girl in,” said Kainec, who also singled earlier in the game against Hallie Mullett (7-3). “I knew she was going outside and I like outside pitches, so I was crowding the plate and looking to hit something hard.”
Kainec did just that, and just like that the Hornets had back-to-back conference titles in softball for the first time in school history.
“It just shows they’ve been fighting all year,” Highland coach Patrick Martin said. “For something like that (appeal play) to happen and have to come back and get another hit shows their character.”
The rest of the game was almost as good as the ending, albeit not nearly as crazy.
Highland’s Fleischer (14-4) gave up 10 hits, but walked just one, struck out 10 and made her best pitches when the stakes were highest.
Tallmadge got at least one hit in every inning but the eighth and had a runner reach at least second base in all but the fourth and eighth, but the Blue Devils’ only run came in a three-hit sixth, when Olivia Carey got a bloop single, Gia Spitali squirted one through the infield and Gabbi Gray delivered a two-out single to score Carey.
“She’s a warrior, man,” Martin said of Fleischer. “She’s been doing that all year. She fights and doesn’t let things rattle her.”
The Blue Devils had a golden opportunity to jump on Fleisher in the first inning, as Madison “Peanut” Rearick drew a one-out walk and went to third on the first of two doubles by Jordon Severns. Rearick, however, rounded the bag too far and was easily thrown out, with Fleischer ending the inning by getting cleanup hitter Carey on a weak grounder to first.
“That started the game off on a high note for us,” Fleischer said. “That really helped us and set them back.”
Tallmadge’s Mullett was just as good, retiring the first 10 batters she faced and allowing just three hits until the ninth. Highland’s first hit, though, was a big one, as Alex Pasco homered to left-center with one out in the fourth to put the Hornets up 1-0.
The Blue Devils tied it in the sixth and that’s the way it stayed until the unforgettable ninth, but anything can — and usually does — happen when these teams get together.
The Hornets trailed 3-1 in the first meeting and were down to their last strike when Alex Chorba belted a two-run homer, with Highland then scoring five times in the eighth to win 8-3.
The rematch was even odder, but the Hornets never lost faith.
“I knew she was going to do it,” Autumn Chorba said of Kainec. “I believe in her. I believe in everyone on this team.”
Kainec did indeed deliver and the Hornets had their second walk-off win in a matter of minutes, making a special conference title even more special.
“Getting it taken from us,” Fleischer said, “gave us an even bigger drive to win it.”
Highland 2, Tallmadge 1 (9 inn.)
TALLMADGE 000 001 000 — 1 10 0
HIGHLAND 000 100 001 — 2 6 1
Two outs when winning run scored. WP — Brittany Fleischer (14-4) 9 innings, 10 hits, run, earned run, walk, 10 strikeouts. LP — Hallie Mullett (7-3) 8⅔innings, 2 runs, 2 earned runs, 2 walks, HBP, 7 strikeouts. Tallmadge (17-5, 10-2) — Jordon Severns 2 doubles, Gia Spitali 2 singles, Olivia Ayres 2 singles, 3 stolen bases. Highland (17-5, 10-2) — Alex Pasco home run, Morgan Belsole double, Sam Kainec 2 singles.