ELM GROVE - Prior to the 2012 softball season, Buckeye Local hadn't won an OVAC title since 1999.
Well, the Panthers are celebrating back-to-back championships after their gut-check, 4-3, nod over Buckeye 8 rival Harrison Central in the Class 3A title tilt Saturday afternoon on sun-splattered Lisa's Field at the I-470 J.B. Chambers Complex.
"We've faced a lot of adversity this season, but these girls have battled through it as a team," Buckeye Local (10-9) head coach Joe Soos said after winning his second title in as many seasons. "When Ivy (Starcher) came back, we've gotten good play out of all of them for the last 6 or 7 days now. Who knows what is going to happen?
BUCKEYE LOCAL seniors Taryn Tonkovich, Aliyah Marelli, Kaylee DeCesare, Amy Balk and Rachel Hoagland hoist the Class 4A championship trophy after edging Harrison Central, 4-3 Saturday afternoon. Additional images may be found at cu.timesleaderonline.com
"You just have to get it going at the right time," he added. "I like where we are at right now."
Leading 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth, the fourth-seeded Panthers, who didn't even qualify for the playoffs until the final day, watched as the second-seeded Huskies (13-5) rallied to draw even when pinch runner Paige Richards raced home on a wild pitch with two outs.
Instead of hanging its heads and getting down, Buckeye Local rallied back to score the game-winner in the top of the seventh. With one out, senior Aliyah Marelli, who was celebrating her birthday, doubled to left-center as Paige Dunlap failed to come up with the ball after a valiant diving effort. Karlee Leonard followed with a double down the left field line that easily scored Marelli.
The first two Harrison Central batters in the bottom of the seventh watched as the count went to 3-0, but Ivy Starcher fought back to retire both on strikes - the first swinging and the second looking. She then induced a comebacker to seal the deal.
"This is her first complete game in three weeks," Soos said of his ace in the circle. "She's had a pulled muscle in her back. She plays angry. She gets the eye of the tiger and she's tough."
Harrison Central took an early 2-0 lead as Katie Ellzy blasted a run-scoring triple to deep right-center with two outs in the first frame. Dunlap, who had walked leading off, raced home on the hit. Ellzy scored when Starcher was called for an illegal pitch.
The Huskies wouldn't dent home plate again until Richards scored in the sixth.
During that stretch, Starcher, who struck out 10, had set down 14 straight Harrison Central hitters.
Trailing 2-0, Buckeye Local cut the deficit in half in the second when Amy Balk's sacrifice fly to left plated Lauren Swiger, who had walked. A wild pitch advanced her to second and she moved to third on a groundout.
The Panthers took the lead in the fifth as Taryn Tonkovich reached on an error with one out. Marelli launched an 0-2 pitch for a triple to the fence in right-center to make it 2-2. With the count 1-1 on Leonard, Ellzy uncorked a wild pitch that Marelli scored on for a 3-2 edge.
"Buckeye has been playing well of late, and they played well today," Harrison Central head coach Donnie Bethel allowed. "They gave us a few of the runs that we got, so we can't complain about anything.
"Both teams played hard. I can't fault my team's effort," he added. "The bottom line today was the best team didn't win, but the team that played the best won. No doubt about that today."
Marelli finished a home run shy of the cycle as the Panthers managed eight hits.
Jessica Custer had a pair of singles and a run batted in for Harrison Central.
Buckeye Local visits East Liverpool Tuesday night, while Harrison Central entertains Barnesville Thursday.
North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org