ANDERSON — For the third time in three games during Little League Softball Central Region tournament pool play, the Riverfield All-Stars held at least a two-run lead after the top of the second inning.
Yet, for the second time in three games, Riverfield let that lead slip away, falling to North Ottowa, Mich., 5-4 on a game-winning hit in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Coming into the top of the sixth inning, Riverfield manager Seth Kelley had watched his girls squander a 2-0 lead they held after the top of the second. Now down 4-2 facing North Ottowa’s vaunted pitcher, Leah Vaughan, Kelley tried to light a fire underneath his players as they stepped up to the plate.
“I told them before we went out, ‘Be prepared to go out and play defense cause we’re going to at least tie this game,’ so they started cheering a little bit,” Kelley said.
Myracle Settles led off for Riverfield and delivered an infield hit. Settles then stole second and advanced to third off a ground out from teammate Kalin Hubble. Settles completed her trip around the bases after a past ball from Vaughan gave her a chance to slide into home.
Two batters later, Kelley’s team had runners on first and third. Another past ball from Vaughan allowed Hailey Sargent to score the tying run, but from there, Riverfield’s offense went stagnant.
With runners on second and third and just one out, Kelley said he just needed his girls to get another bat on the ball and try to bring around the go-ahead run. Vaughan had already been taken out of the game for teammate Madelyn Nelson, but even with the game tied, Kelley said his girls couldn’t quite handle the pressure.
In the next half of the inning, North Ottowa took full advantage.
“When you score that go-ahead run, it puts more pressure on them to come out and hit the ball, and us not being able to do that, it gave them confidence coming up there,” Kelley said.
North Ottowa’s first two batters managed to get on base — the second after an error by the first baseman.
Jenna Core’s double advanced Molly Poole to third base, and instead of choosing to walk Michigan’s next batter to load the bases, Kelley put faith in his relief pitcher, Rachel Duncan, to strike out North Ottowa’s next batter.
But a blooper into centerfield by Ashlyn Hall sent Poole home with the winning run.
“I told them I’m proud of them, and I appreciate the fight they put in today,” Kelley said. “Ultimately, we didn’t execute. We didn’t make enough plays. This seems to be a reoccurring theme the last couple games with the game on the line.
“I think we’re the best team here, I really do.”
With the win, North Ottowa sealed a spot in Thursday's semifinals. And now Riverfield needs to be its former opponent’s biggest fan.
Riverfield must first take care of business against Freeport, Ill., at 11 a.m. at Ferguson Field in Indianapolis. A loss in any fashion would send the team home with a 1-3 record in pool play.
But with a win, Riverfield’s focus would then turn to the evening game pitting North Ottowa and Appleton, Wisc.
Appleton would clinch a semifinal spot with a win, eliminating Riverfield in the process. An Appleton loss. however, would create a three-way tie with Freeport and Riverfield at 2-2, and the winner of a tiebreaker involving runs allowed divided by innings played would advance.
As of Tuesday evening, Riverfield holds the lead on the tiebreaker between the three teams. If both games go the normal six innings, and Riverfield gives up three runs or less to Freeport, Kelley’s team would move on.
But anymore runs allowed, and his team’s chances become slimmer and slimmer.
Kelley said because his players still hold at least some control over their own destiny, he thinks they can come ready to play against Freeport, play tighter defense and give themselves new life with a berth to the semifinals.
“I try not to look at the magnitude of the moment and just come out and play,” Kelley said. “I’ve been trying to preach that. ‘It’s just a game, guys. It’s just a game.’
“If I can get them woke up tomorrow and they come fresh and ready to play, I believe we’ll beat Illinois, and we’ll have a chance to get in.”