Patriots pounce with poise against rival Raiders

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

LINCOLN CITY — As she stood in the circle deliberating over signals from her catcher, Kaitlin Kralj anxiously shuffled the softball in her hand.

The Heritage Hills ace had struck out four consecutive Southridge batters and needed just one more out to finish off the Raiders.

Ground ball back to the mound. Kralj scooped and converted the routine play to retire Pocket Athletic Conference rival Southridge and cement a 4-1 victory for the Class 3A No. 7 Patriots on Tuesday in Lincoln City.

The triumph was the second straight for Heritage Hills against Southridge after the Raiders eliminated the Patriots the two previous seasons in the sectional.

While the fidgeting with the ball might have suggested Kralj was beginning to tense up, the thought served only as a red herring for opposing batters. For Kralj, who spun a complete-game two-hitter without surrendering an earned run and striking out 12, stepping in the circle is something performed through ease.

Kralj didn’t allow a baserunner in her final two innings, and no Southridge batter advanced past first base with exception of two Raiders in their run-scoring fifth inning. And much has to do with the Kralj’s relationship with catcher Hayli Scott, she said.

With Scott relaying the signals, Kralj can deliver without worry.

“We have really good camaraderie,” Kralj said. “She knows what to call and when and I’m really comfortable with her and she’s really comfortable with me. So that works out really well.”

The serenity seemed to be transposable for the Patriots (14-3, 4-0), whose first-inning at-bats demonstrated a similarly collected temperament.

With Scott on first base, Felicia Leibering fell behind Raider hurler Alli Bounds 0-2 after a pair of failed bunt attempts. No worries. Leibering battled to a full count and bombed Bounds’ seventh offering deep into centerfield to plate Scott for the early advantage.

Kralj stepped in next, and fell behind 0-2 as well. No reason to panic. Kralj engineered an eight-pitch walk, which brought up Kayala Hoppenjans. The junior sailed a ball back to center field, deep enough to enable Leibering to tag from third.

The plate patience equated to a 31-pitch first inning for Bounds, who completed two frames before swapping positions with third baseman Megan Stapleton.

As Heritage Hills coach Joe Asbury witnessed his team’s smooth selectiveness at the plate, he credited the poise to the Patriots’ experience.

“We’ve got veteran players,” Asbury said. “And those veteran players, they’re not going to be called out on a called Strike 3. They’re going to fight until they get something to put into play.”

The approach paid dividends again in the fifth inning for Heritage Hills, which clung to a 2-1 advantage at the time. Leibering, who finished 2-for-3 and scored twice, notched a single on the eighth pitch of her at-bat. Two batters later, Hoppenjans punched a single up the middle after seeing six pitches. A Raider fielding error in the outfield allowed Leibering to trek home, providing the home crew with an insurance run.

Remove the two first-inning runs, however, and the Raiders (6-8, 2-4) settled down nicely in the circle. Stapleton compiled three innings without allowing an earned run. Kendyl Dearing entered in the sixth when the Pats tallied their final run, also unearned.

The turnaround provided reassurance for Raider coach Stephanie Fleck.

“In the first inning, it was really nerve-racking with a high pitch count,” Fleck said. “But our pitchers really settled down and started to throw strikes and mix up pitches and try to get them off-balance.”

Offensively, Dearing served as the only Raider to reach base twice. She laced a hard-hit single to center field in the third and was walked in the fifth with Brianna Lammers already occupying second base and the Raiders trailing 2-1. Lammers had reached safely when a throw from third base sailed over first base, which allowed Kayley Main to score Southridge’s lone run.

Yet Kralj again found the comfort zone. She struck out the next batter on four pitches to escape the jam and preserve the one-run lead.

The way Fleck rationalized it, while the rivalry loss might sting, the experience from playing a high-caliber opponent can only benefit the Raiders.

“It’s just a thing you get up for,” Fleck said of the matchup with Heritage Hills. “Like we told our girls, this is what you come to practice for: to get better. And this is why we face these good teams. So we can get better for the sectional time.”

Asbury found areas for improvement as well, lamenting the overabundance of fly balls and popups and the scarcity of sharply hit balls by the Pats. Yet much of the rustiness could be attributed to the five days since the Patriots’ last game, a period during which Asbury scheduled just one practice: two straight hours of hitting on Monday. While their play might have appeared a bit less refined, the respite is sure to benefit the Patriots during the busy upcoming weeks, the coach said.

“With softball, you play so many dang games, and we’ve just been together so much and we play all the time,” Asbury said. “We just felt that, mentally and emotionally, we just need to take a break from each other and the game.

“May is tough. You know, it’s the end of the school year and kids have a lot going on, and we expect them to stay mentally focused in the evenings with softball. So hopefully everybody got a good break and come ready to finish these last three weeks with a positive mental attitude.”

Evidenced by Kralj’s words, maintaining focus shouldn’t be an issue for the Patriots.

“It’s satisfying,” the hurler said of the win, before quickly setting her sights on what’s to come. “I think we’re going to keep that moving forward because we want to take the conference title. So now we’re just looking ahead to Gibson Southern on Friday.”

They’re winners: Over the last decade, the Heritage Hills softball team has averaged a touch below 20 wins per season. In that stretch, their best seasons came in 2005, when they went 24-4, and last spring, when they were 24-7. This year’s Patriots have already captured 14 victories with 11 regular-season contests remaining.

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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