SHADYSIDE - River has won a school-record 25 games this season on the softball diamond, but none of those victories are more cherished than the one it picked up Monday.
The third-seeded Lady Pilots (25-3) navigated their way to a 3-1 triumph over top-seeded St. John Central (19-5) in a Division IV co-sectional final on the Mead Township Park diamond in overcast Tiger Town.
With the win, head coach Dave Wright's crew ended the Irish's dominance in the tournament. While the Pilots will be headed to their second district tournament in three seasons, St. John Central was denied a 13th trip in 14 years to New Philadelphia.
THE RIVER Pilots’ softball team celebrates its 3-1 sectional tournament victory against top-seeded St. John Central Monday afternoon in Shadyside. The Pilots advance to the district tournament at Tuscarawas Central Catholic next week in New Philadelphia. Additional images may be found at cu.timesleaderonline.com
"This is a special win," an emotional Wright said. "(St. John Central's) Hannah (Absalom) pitched as well as I've ever seen her pitch today. It took us until the sixth inning to get our bats warmed up a little bit.
"I'm proud of these girls," he continued. "They deserve it. They work hard all year. They really deserve it."
Trailing 1-0 entering the top of the sixth, River had mustered only a two-out single in the second by Mikayla Cieszeski off St. John Central's ace inside the circle, Hannah Absalom.
However, that all changed as Madi Taylor's sinking liner to center skipped off the grass and past the Irish fielder as Taylor raced to second. One out later, winning pitcher Monica Curtis blasted a 3-1 pitch to the fence in right-center as Taylor scored easily. An out later, Mackenzie Marshall laced a single down the third base line that chased home courtesy runner, Brissa Marshall, with the go-ahead run, 2-1.
The Pilots would add to their margin in the seventh. Cieszeski lined an 0-2 pitch down the rightfield line for a double, and Brissa Marshall entered as a pinch runner this time. After advancing to third on a passed ball, Marshall sprinted to the plate when the first pitch to Landyn Ramsay was in the dirt and eluded Irish catcher Cheyenne Harris. Marshall was able to get to the plate just ahead of the diving Harris for an all-important insurance tally.
"That was some aggressive baserunning by Brissa," Wright said. "But that's why she's in there."
St. John Central, which took a 1-0 lead on Absalom's two-out RBI single in the third, threatened in the bottom of the seventh. Kate Lovinski struck out leading off against Curtis, but the ball was dropped and Lovinski raced to first. Sydney Helms followed with a slow roller to the right side of the infield that was misplayed as runners were on first and second.
"It got a little scary there," Wright admitted. "That should have been two outs and nobody on."
Curtis induced an infield popup before getting a fielder's choice for the second out. Taylor Lowe's flyball to center settled into Taylor's glove as the Pilots' dugout erupted in celebration.
"This is a big win for us," Curtis said. "It's nice to help our seniors continue their careers."
What was her take on the final inning?
"It got a little nerve-racking, but we held together and got the win."
Curtis, who fanned five, walked two and allowed three singles, was surprised when her coach gave her the ball to start the game instead of senior Gabby Goudy, who one-hit Frontier in Saturday's win.
"I was a little nervous, but it didn't take long for them to go away," Curtis said with a smile.
The pitching maneuver also surprised veteran St. John Central head coach Jerry Magistro.
"We planned, in the short time we had, for the Goudy girl," he explained. "I scouted her (Goudy) Saturday and then we get someone else thrown at us. That throws you off, but we just didn't come out and get that key hit when we needed it."
Despite the loss, Magistro had high praise for his opponent.
"There's no doubt about it. They are a good team," he said of River. "I take my hat off to them and wish them all the luck. They've got a lot of good players and coaches."
He was also praiseful for his young squad, which loses only one senior, that being Absalom, who finished with 14 strikeouts - including 10 of the first 11 outs - and no walks. She gave up five hits, four in the fateful sixth inning. She also had two of the three Irish hits.
"What can you say about that girl," he said of Absalom. "She did everything we asked of her for three years. In my opinion, she's not only one of the best players in the Ohio Valley and St. John Central history, she's the best Division IV player in the state of Ohio, as well.
"We've had a lot of really good players here, but she's definitely one of them," he added.
"We've got everyone back but her, but it depends on the girls coming back if they are going to be healthy enough to play," he added. "Due to everything we went through this season, these freshmen, and we had a lot of them play all season, got to play in a game like this, and hopefully, we got this far, but what's it going to take to win next year and not have this taste of losing.
"These girls aren't used to this. It's going to be a weird feeling not going to New Philadelphia next week."
River will make that trek Tuesday to face the winner of Wednesday's matchup between defending state champion Strasburg and Newcomerstown. The district semifinal will begin at 5 p.m. and be played at Tuscarawas Catholic Central High School's Art Teynor Athletic Complex.
River 000 002 1 - 3 5 2
St. John Central 001 000 0 - 1 3 1
R-Curtis wp (5K, 2W) and M. Marshall; Curtis D, rbi; M. Marshall S, rbi; Ramsay rbi; Cieszeski S, D
SJC-Absalom lp (14K, 0W) and Harris; Absalom 2S, rbi