BY CHAD DARE
Playing with a lead can give a team confidence.
In two regular-season meetings this year, Salt Fork softball team held a lead for just two of 14 innings against Schlarman Academy.
Schlarman went on to win both of those previous encounters to claim the Vermilion Valley Conference softball title.
On Wednesday afternoon, Salt Fork scored three times in the second inning and the Storm never looked back in their 5-3 win over the Hilltoppers in the IHSA Class 1A regional semifinal contest at Fisher.
“Today, we didn’t put our heads down when we made mistakes,’’ said Salt Fork senior Jenna Bryant, who went 1-for-3 with two runs scored. “The other two times, I think we kind of gave up on ourselves when we made some mistakes. We still fought, but we kind of slowed down a little bit.
“It was real important to keep fighting through, keep fighting through.’’
And that’s exactly what Salt Fork did in the second inning.
Schlarman, which ends its season at 16-13, actually took a 1-0 lead on a Joslyn Dietzen run-scoring grounder in the top half of the inning.
The Storm, who are now 14-7, answered that run with three of their own on just one hit as the Hilltoppers committed two errors on sacrifice bunts.
“We’ve worked hard the last two practices on executing, laying down the bunts, giving ourselves baserunners and getting them in scoring position. We did that tonight,’’ Salt Fork coach Kali Ford said.
All three runs scored by the Storm in that second inning were unearned because of the fielding miscues.
“Errors killed us a little bit,’’ Schlarman coach Mary Lovejoy said. “When there is an error, they usually lead to a run or two and that is going to hurt you later on.’’
Salt Fork sealed its spot in Saturday’s championship game with a pair of solo home runs.
Nicole Weston belted one over the center-field fence in the third inning and Bryant blasted one to left in the sixth.
“I was so excited about it,’’ said Bryant, the only senior on the Salt Fork roster. “I thought it was going drop down, and I was bookin’ it for second.
“Then, I heard everyone yell and it was like, ‘Oh, yes.’”
That was more that enough run support for freshman Logan Sanford, who allowed just three hits in getting her first-ever postseason victory.
“We felt our best chance was to go with Sanford, with a quick hook to pull her and put Peyton (Meade) in if we needed to,’’ said Ford about her decision on which pitcher to start in Wednesday’s contest. “She just turned 15. That’s huge for her. We put it all on her shoulders and she really stepped up to the plate.’’
Sanford didn’t walk a batter, but she hit two and struck out two.
Will she get the start in Saturday’s championship game against Fisher?
“I don’t know. I was so focused on today. I don’t know even know what time the game is on Saturday,’’ Ford said. “We get to decide in the next two nights in practice.’’
Schlarman had the tying run at second base in the fifth inning against Sanford.
But Taylor Rangel’s line drive to left field was snared by Salt Fork third baseman Emilie McFadden. One inning later, Storm second baseman Allie Trosper made a diving catch on a ball hit by Taylor Neville.
“In games previously with Salt Fork, we hit the ball,’’ said Lovejoy, whose team had 16 hits in two previous games against the Storm. “There were a lot of hard hits, but Salt Fork made some really good plays.’’
Lovejoy, the first-year coach at Schlarman, admitted it was frustrating to lose in the regional semifinals after winning the outright conference title.
“As a new program, a new coach and a new attitude — yes, it’s frustrating,’’ she said. “But I’m extremely proud of my girls.
“We got off to a rocky beginning, but turned things around and I’m just blessed to be a part of this program.’’
Saturday’s regional championship game in Fisher between the Salt Fork Storm and the Fisher Bunnies is scheduled for an 11 a.m. start.