CHELTENHAM — There are several ways to win a softball game at the scholastic level.
A team can swing its way past an opponent with a bevy of hits and runs. And then there's the small ball kind of win.
Undefeated Suburban One American adversaries Upper Merion and Cheltenham took to the field in a contest that would feature stellar pitching with impressive defensive fielding, to boot.
The Viking hitters only accounted for two hits in the game, but UM managed to defeat the Panthers, 2-0, at Cheltenham High on Wednesday afternoon.
"Both teams played really good defense. Both teams made a lot of good plays. It's small ball,' Upper Merion coach John Whitney said.
"We came up with a couple big hits ... but you got to scrap out runs and you got to play good D and you can't give up anything.'
Going into the game, both squads knew what they were in for — the kind of scrap-it-out play that every coach asks of their ballclub. On the mound for their respective squads was sophomore Olivia Sborlini for Upper Merion, and Cheltenham's junior hurler Grace DeRosa.
DeRose began the pitcher's duel with a gem of a performance, retiring the first nine batters — striking out four in a row in the process.
"She's made notice of who she is this year,' Cheltenham coach Ron Perlstein said of his ace. "I told Gracie I was proud of her for two-hitting this powerful team.'
On the flip side, Sborlini sputtered her way past the first few innings. In the first, the Panthers worked their way into a bases loaded situation. But Cheltenham (6-2, 5-1) was hard-pressed to take advantage of its opportunities during the game.
Madison Gianelle began the inning for her Panthers with a single and was then moved into scoring position at second when the following hitter Rita Laychock laid down a sacrifice bunt. Then, Becca Simms whipped a single to right field, and Cheltenham was in business with runners on the corners.
Erica Winter put down another sacrifice bunt that moved Simms over to second, and a batter later Nina Jackson's walk chucked up the bases.
Yet, Sborlini and the Vikings (6-2, 5-0) kept battling and escaped the jam when Kelly Graham popped up to first basemen Dezerea Kandy — dodging a bullet in the early going.
In the home half of the third, the Panthers again threatened to pounce on the Vikings after Simms lifted a pitch that kissed just inside the right field foul line for a triple with two outs. But again, Sborlini worked her magic and struck out Winter to end the frame.
Upper Merion's breakthrough came in the following inning when Kandy bunted her way onto first base, stole second and then third, before scoring on sac fly by Abby Volpe.
With the Panthers down a run, they came out in the fifth with some vigor. Allie Williams led off the inning with a double and moved onto third after another sac bunt.
Gianelle then slapped a grounder towards Upper Merion shortstop Allie Moffet, who scrambled to her left and looked ready to throw out the runner at first. But when Williams made a break for home, the sophomore threw a strike to catcher Maddalana Ghanayem and she tagged Williams to end the threat.
Then in the sixth, Sborlini took matters into her own hands and added a cushion that the Vikings would not relinquish. After Kandy drew a walk with two outs, Sborlini smoked an RBI triple to the left field gap. UM could have tacked on another run, but Cheltenham's Laychock made a diving stop to rob Volpe of another RBI, but the Vikings had enough runs to seal the deal at that point.
It was smooth sailing for Sborlini in the seventh, as she retired the batters in order, and the Vikings topped the Panthers.
Overshadowed by solid defensive play and a gutsy pitching performance by DeRosa, Cheltenham will lament on the fact that nine runners were stranded on five hits.
"I thought we played well enough to win,' Cheltenham coach Ron Perlstein noted. "I thought that we had girls in scoring positions, but it was just a matter of maybe taking a chance.
"We will learn from this and pick it up as far as our aggressiveness on the bases and crossing the plate a little more. There were just one or two plays when we could have scored. I think that's shown us that we have the ability to play with anybody in our league, even the defending champions.'
For the Vikings, the defending SOL American champs will take the win in stride and look to improve in a conference that is only getting better around them.
"They know how to play the game. It makes it easy to coach them,' Whitney said of his team. "They're very disciplined, they're very aggressive, and they want to win.
"Right now (the win) will put us in the driver's seat, but we've got a lot of games to go — we've got no room for error.'