With rain looming, the Highland High School softball team found itself in a 4-0 hole after host O’Fallon scored of its runs in the third inning on Wednesday, March 18.
But the Lady Bulldogs were far from ready to concede, as they rallied for three runs in the fifth before pushing across the tying tally in the sixth. Then, not long before the rain started to fall, Highland notched the winning run in the eighth to score a dramatic 5-4 extra-inning victory over the Panthers in both teams’ season openers.
The huge come-from-behind win made Brittne Zobrist a winner in her debut as the head coach at her alma mater,
“This win was a great one,” Zobrist said. “The girls never gave up, never hung their heads and fought their way back to take the victory. Being down 4-0 going into the bottom of the fifth, I wasn’t worried.”
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Zobrist knew what her lineup brings to the plate.
“I knew it was only a matter of time when we would put runs on the board. This win was so important to us. We wanted to start the season out right and we really demonstrated what Highland is going to stand for this year,” she said. “This team is never out of a game, no matter what inning or what the score is. These girls never give up. Our motto is: ‘Refuse to lose.’ It seems to be working. I couldn’t be prouder of this bunch. Every single girl contributed today.”
Highland won, thanks in large part, to the late-game heroics of sophomore Hannah Miener, who clubbed two huge extra-base hits in the game. After ripping a triple and scoring the tying run in the sixth, Miener came up in the top of the eighth with the score deadlocked at 4-4 and sophomore Peyton Holzinger having just smacked a leadoff double to right field to represent the potential go-ahead run.
Holzinger delivered, yanking a double of her own, this one to left field, to trade places with Holzinger and drive in what would be the game-winning run.
“I was focusing on seeing the ball and making contact and thinking about how I could help the team,” Miener said. “Our defense was solid, and we have great hitters in our lineup that I knew would move me around if I could get on base. It’s a great feeling to be able to come through for my teammates. But it took everyone on the field today. This was a total team win.”
Highland hurler Jenna Gnaedinger, a sophomore right-hander who went the distance, gave up a bloop single to right off the bat of O’Fallon senior Sami Stadts to begin the bottom of the eighth.
But Gnaedinger battled back to retire the next three batters in order, including punching out Taylor VanAusdall to cap off big comeback. The big defensive play in the game’s final at-bat was a diving catch in right field by sophomore Sierra Huelsmann that robbed O’Fallon’s Addie Barnouski of an extra-base hit and potentially driving in Stadts with the game-tying run.
“This is a big win for us,” said Gnaedinger, who threw 130 pitches. “They are a big school, and we were able to come in and get a win.”
The victory was also big for Gnaedinger, who was touched for four runs — just one earned — in the third. Hannah Siegler and Allison Underwood led off with back-to-back doubles to give O’Fallon a lead. Then an error on what should have retired Jordan Derlmer and allowed Underwood to score and Derlmer to reach second.
A tough inning
After a fly out for the first out, which actually should have been the second out, Addie Barnowski singled to put runners on the corners. Gnaedinger then got Stadts to fly out in foul territory to sophomore catcher Megan Frey, which should have been the end of the inning, if not for the error. But VanAusdall made the extra at-bat pay off with a two-run single to dig Highland a 4-0 hole before Gnaeinger got Cassie Brown to ground back to herself to end the inning.
“It was a tough inning,” Gnaedinger said after earning the hard-fought triumph. “After it was over, I tried not to think about it. I went with a lot more adrenaline in the fourth. I wanted to keep them where they were and I thought we would start getting some hits.”
Gnaedinger (1-0) was strong en route to shutting out the Panthers the rest of the way. She allowed just three hits and no walks over the final five frames. Gnaedinger’s finishing line was solid: one earned run (four overall) on eight hits and one walk, compared with eight strikeouts in eight innings.
“Jenna pitched so well,” Zobrist said. “It seemed like she got better as the game went on. She had some key strikeouts with runners on. Megan Frey had a key defensive play when she threw out the runner trying to steal third in the bottom of the sixth. We knew it was coming and Megan executed the throw to (senior shortstop) Mallory (Frey) covering third perfectly.”
Barnowski took the loss for O’Fallon after being credited with 7 2/3 innings of work and surrendering five earned runs on nine hits and two walks. She struck out six.
Trailing 4-0, Highland began the comeback in the top of the fifth.
With two outs and Huelsmann at third base after singling, advancing to second on sophomore Megan Frey’s sacrifice and moving to third on a passed ball, Gnaedinger walked. Sophomore Aubrey Hacke was then summoned to courtesy run for Gnaedinger to put runners on the corners.
The Lady Bulldogs then pulled off a double steal, with Huelsmann thieving on home plate to get her team on the board while Hacke made it safely to second. Sophomore Reily Kassay then smacked a single to center to score Hacke and cut O’Fallon’s lead in half at 4-2. Kassay also moved up to second on the throw home that failed to get Hacke. Next, freshman Kirsten Plocher lined a single to left to plate Kassay and pull Highland within one at 4-3.
Miener greeted the top of the sixth by rocking a triple to right field. Then after junior Lauren Wright walked, Miener scored on a wild pitch to tie the game and set the stage for her own extra-inning heroics.