BY AARON PATTERSON
It took a little time for them to get going this season, but the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers softball team is back where it wants to be. Actually, it’s back where it is used to being.
With two conference games remaining, a 6-4 win over the Westville Tigers on Monday clinched at least a share of the Vermilion Valley Conference title. It’s a goal the Hilltoppers fell short of last season after controversy forced them to forfeit a number of games.
“It’s a good feeling because I know at the beginning of the year everyone doubted us,” Schlarman Academy pitcher Maria Rangel said. “They said that we probably weren’t going to win. We struggled at the beginning of the year, but we’ve improved so much.”
The winning tradition at Schlarman Academy, though not always a given, is something this year’s team felt as though it needed to live up to. But entering the season, nothing was guaranteed. In addition to losing players from last year’s squad, the Hilltoppers gained a new head coach in Mary Lovejoy when longtime coach Randy Skaggs left for an opportunity at Danville Area Community College.
Lovejoy played for four years under Skaggs and has first-hand knowledge of just how important it is to the program to keep a winning tradition going.
After starting the season 0-7, the Hilltoppers have now won 14 games and have found the right formula to get on a roll heading into the upcoming regional.
“We just found a way to bring it all together,” Lovejoy said. “It was new for me, it was new for them, it was new for the entire coaching staff. We have been very blessed to find a mold that fits us all. Yeah, we’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re all excited to be a family.”
The Hilltoppers had more ups than downs in Monday’s win until running into a bit of trouble in the final frame.
Rangel faced only 24 batters through the first six innings and recorded all five of her strikeouts during the span. Westville did get five hits but left six runners on with five in scoring position.
The Tigers finally broke through in the seventh inning when they scored four runs on five hits and one hit batsman. But a base-running error proved costly for the second out of the inning, and once again, a runner was left stranded at second base at the end of the game.
“I think the first three innings, we got runners in scoring position every inning,” Westville coach Shawn Skinner said. “Unfortunately, it’s like a broken record this year; we can’t get a two-out hit. We were fine until there were two outs in the seventh inning. We have been missing the two-out hit all year.
“We give them credit. They built their 3-0 lead not on hitting the ball but on making us make plays and taking advantage of our mistakes. I don’t feel like we played very well, but I tip my cap to them because they took advantage of everything they could, and they found a way to build a lead.”
Westville was 1-for-8 with two outs and 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position. All three hits came in the seventh inning.
Rangel credited her change-up for keeping the Westville hitters off balance and said that through six innings, it was one of her best performances of the season.
“Wow! She was on,” Lovejoy said. “Her change-up gets me fired up every time I see it. She’s really been working hard all year. She stepped up as our starting pitcher. She didn’t pitch a lot last year. It’s her time now. I think she realizes that, and she’s ready to take it on.”
Schlarman Academy had only four hits against the Westville pitching combination of Kylie Lesko and Carson Richardson, but the Westville pitchers also hit three batters and gave up nine walks.
The Hilltoppers had only on hit through the first five innings but scored their first three runs on a wild pitch, a throwing error, and a passed ball.
Schlarman Academy is scheduled to play at Oakwood tonight and will host Armstrong-Potomac on Wednesday. One win will clinch sole possession of this year’s Vermilion Valley Conference title.
Westville has only one game left before the regional and will face Bismarck-Henning on Wednesday. While the Tigers haven’t had the season they might have dreamed of, Skinner remains optimistic for future success.
“The one thing about this is, I still don’t feel like we’ve put a complete game together,” Skinner said. “This team is too much of a veteran ball club and has too much talent. I do feel good about that. I feel like we still haven’t played that game that we’re absolutely capable of. Maybe, maybe we’ll catch fire and do it during the postseason. I certainly think we’re capable of it. We’ll see.”