BELMONT — Getting the lead early in the game has been a habit of the Belmont softball team all season long.
In Thursday’s sectional final, getting the lead early proved to be vital as the Braves locked down a state tournament berth after defeating Oakfield 1–0 in a rain-shortened WIAA Division 5 sectional championship game held Thursday at Belmont’s Bond Park.
“We’re really excited to go on,” said Belmont head coach Jeff Hodgson, who will lead his Braves to state for the seventh time in program history and the second time in the past three years. “This is what was wanted to do and we did it. But, we didn’t just want to get to state. We want to win it.”
The top-ranked Braves (24–1 overall), who despite being the host school were determined to be the guests by a coin flip prior to the game, took a 1–0 lead over the #7-ranked Oaks (14–8) by scoring a run in the top of the second inning and held into that lead through five completed innings.
In the top of the sixth, the Braves scored twice more to extend their lead to 3–0. The 2018 D5 state runner-up Oaks answered with two runs of their own to cut the deficit back to 3–2 and were threatening to add more with the bases loaded and the top of the order coming to bat.
But after playing the game in sunshine much of the day, the skies grew dark and opened up over Bond Park, forcing the umpires to suspend play with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. The rain poured down for about half an hour, dropping a significant amount of water upon the field.
With large puddles around home plate, first base and the pitcher’s circle and standing water in the outfield, the lead umpire met with both coaches and determined the field conditions to be unsafe and unplayable to continue. After a call to the WIAA to confirm the ruling in this case, it was determined that since the teams had completed five full innings to make it an official game, that the Braves were the winner by a score of 1–0 — the score at the end of the last completed inning — and they would be heading to state.
“The umpire determined that the field was unplayable,” said Hodgson following the game. “Oakfield will want to put an asterisk on this, but it’s the rules and it’s how it’s been played forever. I didn’t make the rules.”
Belmont grabbed the lead in the top of the second when freshman pinch runner Taytem Benson scored on a sacrifice fly to left field by junior Mackenzie Shelnutt for the game’s first run. Benson was running for junior first baseman McKenzie Reuter who walked to begin the inning.
It was the 21st time in their 25 games in which the Braves had scored first, and the 20th game in which they never trailed at any point. The Braves added to their lead in the top of the sixth inning on a pair of clutch two-out, RBI singles by freshman pinch hitter Lilly Caley and sophomore second baseman Peyton Johnson.
Senior pitcher Sadie Willborn who took a no-hitter into the bottom of the sixth inning, got herself into trouble by walking two batters and hitting another to start the Oakfield sixth. Following a strikeout for the first out, Willborn issued her seventh walk of the game to bring in the Oaks’ first run, and then Sydney Newton followed with an infield single to make it 3–2.
Willborn got the next batter to ground back to her and cut down the lead runner at the plate to keep the lead intact. However, before she could issue a pitch to Oaks leadoff hitter Avery Conger, who she had retired in two of her three at-bats in the game, the umpires pulled the teams off the field. They would not return. Willborn (24–1) was credited with a five-inning no-hitter and a complete-game shutout victory in the circle. Officially, she fanned seven batters and walked four in the game.
“Our six seniors are flat out amazing,” said Hodgson. “They all play a different role, and play them well. I think we’re a team of destiny.”
Belmont advanced to Thursday’s contest by defeating Southwestern 8–2 in a WIAA D5 sectional semifinal game played at Bond Park on Tuesday, May 28.
The Braves jumped ahead for good by scoring four times in the bottom of the first inning. Senior shortstop Nikki Knebel doubled in a run and scored on a single by Reuter to put the hosts ahead to stay, while Shelnutt drove in two more with a two-out double to make it 4–0. Belmont tacked on insurance runs in the second and fourth innings to go up 6–2, and then added two more runs in the sixth to put the Wildcats (16–10) away.
Senior Callie Douglas went 2-for-3 for the Braves, while junior Caitlyn Cushman scored twice in the win. Willborn surrendered two unearned runs on two hits and four walks and she fanned six to post the victory in the circle.
“Our seniors played like seniors against Southwestern. They have carried us this season,” said Hodgson.
Belmont received the #2-seed for the state tournament and will face #3-seed Tri-County (19–3) in a Division 5 semifinal affair at UW–Madison’s Goodman Diamond on Thursday at 5 p.m. Top-seed and #2-ranked Blair-Taylor (27–0) will meet #4-seed and #8-ranked Giman (21–4) in the other D5 semifinal game Thursday at 7 p.m. The WIAA Division 5 state championship game will be held Saturday at 8 a.m. at Goodman Diamond.
WIAA Division 5 sectional semifinal
Belmont 8, Southwestern 2
(from Tuesday, May 28 @ Belmont)
Southwestern..000 200 0 — 2 2 0
Belmont.............410 102 x — 8 9 2
Leading hitters — S: Maddy Myers 2x3; B: Callie Douglas 2x3. 2B — B: Nikki Knebel, Mackenzie Shelnutt.
W — Sadie Willborn (23–1, 7IP, 2H, 2R, 0ER, 6K, 4BB). L — Hannah Brant (6IP, 9H, 8R, 7ER, 1K, 1BB).
WIAA Division 5 sectional final
Belmont 1, Oakfield 0
(from Thursday, May 23 @ Belmont)
Belmont....010 00 — 1 3 1
Oakfield....000 00 — 0 0 2
Leading hitters — B: Peyton Johnson 2x3.
W — Sadie Willborn (24–1, 5IP, 0H, 0R, 6K, 4BB). L — Avery Conger (3IP, 1H, 1R, 0ER, 0K, 3BB).