MINFORD, Ohio — Victory was so close that the Lady Eagles could almost taste it.
The second-seeded Eastern softball team was one-out away from a 1-0 win over third-seeded Paint Valley, in Tuesday night’s Division IV district final at Minford High School, but PVHS senior Madison Smith hit a two-run triple that propelled the Lady Bearcats to a 3-1 victory.
Madison Smith was also responsible for the game’s first hit, which came in the third inning with no-outs. However, Paint Valley (16-6) couldn’t do anything with the base runner, as two strikeouts sandwiched around a fly-out ended the inning.
Eastern (19-7) finally broke through in the bottom of the fourth inning, as freshman Emmalea Durst tripled to lead off the frame. The Lady Eagles loaded the bases on back-to-back unsuccessful fielder’s choice plays, and then Cera Grueser drew a base on balls, plating Durst and giving EHS a 1-0 lead.
Despite still having the bases loaded with no-outs, Eastern failed to score as a 1-to-2 ground-out followed by back-to-back strikeouts retired the side.
Paint Valley got its second hit of the night with one out in the top of the seventh inning, but a base running error at second base made the second out of the inning. Erin Mills — who reached on an error and represented the tying run — moved into scoring position as Savannah Smith was hit by a pitch.
On the next at-bat, with two strikes in the count, Madison Smith hit a triple to the right-field gap, plating both Mills and Savannah Smith to give the Lady Bearcats a 2-1 lead. Madison Smith then scored on an infield single by Jill Bouillion, pushing the lead to 3-1.
Eastern was retired in order in the bottom of the seventh, as PVHS claimed the 3-1 win and the spot in Saturday’s district final.
“It’s tough right now, the kids did everything that we asked them to do,” third-year Eastern head coach Bryan Durst said. “It basically came right down to the last pitch, we had two strikes on the batter, the ball was perfectly placed and our defense made a great effort on the play. We’re kind of shocked right now, but I love all these kids. It was just a great game.”
Paint Valley junior Mikayla Newland struck out 15 batters in a complete game effort and earned the pitching victory in the circle, allowing one earned run on one hit and one walk.
Eastern junior Jess Coleman — who struck out eight batters in seven innings of work — suffered the loss in the record book, allowing three unearned runs on four hits, one walk and two hit batters.
“Jess is a great competitor and she pitched a brilliant game tonight,” Coach Durst said. “She had a little trouble in the second inning and got behind on a few batters, but when she got her confidence back she was mowing them down. She’s been our ace all year long, and you talk about going 15-1 in league with all the things that she’s done this year, I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Emmalea Durst’s triple was Eastern’s lone hit, and she scored the Lady Eagles’ only run, while Grueser was credited with an RBI.
Madison Smith led the victors with one triple, one single, two RBI and one run scored in four at-bats, while Bouillion singled once and drove in one run. Amy Hollis singled once in the win, while Mills and Savannah Smith both scored once.
For the game, Eastern had three errors and five runners left on base, while PVHS had two errors and six runners stranded.
Paint Valley will face top-seeded Leesburg Fairfield in the district final, on Saturday morning in Minford. The Lady Lions defeated fourth-seeded Trimble 13-1 in five innings, on Tuesday in Minford.
Eastern has now been a part of 10 district tournaments, since last winning a district title in 2003.
“What’s going to make a difference in this team is how hard we work in the offseason,” Durst said. “When we come back in February we need to get to that one extra step, because we’re right there. That one extra effort is going to mean a lot to us.”
This is the final game in the Green and Gold for Eastern’s lone senior Kayla Tripp.
“She supported us all the way and she’s a great kid,” Durst said of Tripp.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.