WEST GROVE - Arguably the top two high school softball teams in the Ches-Mont League, Avon Grove and West Chester Henderson have each piled up its wins against the rest of the league, not having had to face one another until Monday afternoon.
The two squads battled right up to the final out of the ball game, but in the end, the Red Devils capitalized on several Warrior miscues with some timely hitting to come away with a 5-3 victory.
"Every game we play from here on out is going to be the biggest game of the year,' said Avon Grove coach Julie Hatfield, whose team improved to 10-2. "We knew coming in that we'd be playing a well-rounded, well coached team and we'd need to bring our A-game.'
With two of the league's top hurlers squaring off in Henderson's Lauren Butts and Avon Grove's Maggie Balint, every run either team put across the plate figured to loom large, and the Warriors (11-3) wasted absolutely no time in getting one on the board. Leadoff hitter Heidi McCollester connected on the third pitch she saw, a Balint curveball, and drove it over the fence in left center for a solo home run.
"During warm-ups, nothing was working, so I was kind of worried at the start of the game,' said Balint. "I hung a curveball and Heidi hit it hard. I knew I was going to have to figure myself out soon.'
Considering Balint struck out the next six hitters she saw, and 14 overall, it didn't take her too long to find a groove.
"Things really started working well for her in the second inning,' said Devils' catcher Alyssa Herion.
Still, though, the Devils were in a 1-0 hole, with Butts seemingly in a groove, too. Over the first three innings, Butts was pretty much matching Balint strike for strike, out for out, allowing just a bunt single while striking out seven hitters in the first three innings.
Emma Daly sparked a Devils' rally in the third, stroking a one-out single to right, and moved up to third on a double from Balint. Both runners scored when Herion delivered a single to right center. Herion scored when a Henderson throw sailed into right field.
"I knew I had to get on base,' said Daly. "I was confident that if I got on, my teammates would get me in, so I just tried to make contact and get on base.'
Herion paced the Devils' offense on the day, finishing 2-for-3 with a run scored and two runs batted in.
"Alyssa is a powerful part of our line-up,' said Hatfield. "We've been working on making solid contact because she's good such good power behind it, and today she just made good, timely contact.'
Avon Grove tacked on another pair of runs the following inning. After Karissa Brady and Logan Needham reached base on a walk and a bunt respectively, Emily Beck moved them over with a sacrifice. Both runners then scored on the same passed ball after Needham alertly noticed the throw to get Brady went wild.
"She was going on guts,' said Hatfield. "I always tell them if the wait for me to send them, it's probably too late.'
Those runs proved huge, as Henderson cut the lead to 5-3 with a pair of runs in the sixth on a walk to McCollester, a single from Taylor Fouracre, and a double from Miranda Mikelson.
"But we knew from the start that we were going to have to keep scoring and keep the pressure on them,' said Herion. "Henderson is a good team, with high energy, and they can all hit. We knew it wasn't over until the last out.'
The Warriors made a major threat in the top half of the seventh, loading the bases on a single from Julia Cox, and walks to McCollester and Fouracre.
"Heidi already had the home run,' said Balint. "So we walked her on purpose. I didn't want to load the bases, but my defense came through for us.'
Mikelson, already with both runs batted in, came up with two outs and the bases full, and lofted a soft fly ball into no-man's land in short left. With the Avon Grove outfield playing Mikelson deep, second baseman Daly had to go back to make the catch. Initially fooled, Daly recovered, got her glove on the ball, and finally got it settled into the pocket for the final out.
"I broke the wrong way at first, and I wasn't sure where my outfielders were,' said Daly. "But I finally decided to just get my feet under it and tried to get in position to make the catch. I'm really happy I was able to hang on to it.'
The two teams are now in a virtual dead heat, with two weeks to play before they square off again at Henderson in the final game of the season.
"We might be tied now,' said Herion. "But I also think getting this win makes us the team to beat.'