Patriots bond to fend off Cats

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Heritage Hills’ Kaitlin Kralj, left, and Hunter Crane, patted teammate Madison Gogel on the helmet after Gogel scored a run during Tuesday’s collision of softball rivals in Lincoln City. Kralj also whirled a complete game, guiding the Patriots to a 5-3 victory. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Writer

LINCOLN CITY — The hugs say it all. There may be three years between them, but Kaitlin Kralj and Hunter Crane are pretty much BFFs by now.

After occupying the battery the past three seasons with 2013 graduate and two-time All-Pocket Athletic Conference catcher Hayli Scott, Kralj fell into a bit of an unusual scenario this spring, working for the first time with a freshman behind the plate.

Yet it hasn’t been quite the getting-to-know-you one might expect.

See, Crane has caught Kralj for quite some time. Well, kind of. She’s caught Kaitlin’s younger sister, Megan, for three years on a travel team taught by Kralj’s dad, Edward, and this offseason, Crane and Kaitlin forged their own pitcher-catcher bond working with former Jasper coach Tom Rupert.

“So I already knew her before we got even tighter (this season),” Crane said of the Patriot hurler.

“I’m not afraid to make her mad,” Kralj kidded.

“It’s so easy to talk to her,” Crane continued.

“It’s great,” Kralj finished the back-and-forth.

And then the hugs. The giddy embraces after the Patriots outlasted Jasper 5-3 in Tuesday’s contest at Lincoln City that echoed a sentiment shared by the entire Heritage Hills contingent.

Even for a program that lost so much from a season ago — nine seniors, seven starters — the bonds now seem to be stronger than ever.

“This is the closest team I’ve had in a long time,” Kralj said.

The Patriot roster now boasts just three seniors. And the shrunken number may have sparked the desire to mold young and old faster, as the elder players “realize there’s only three seniors so they need some help,” Patriot coach Joe Asbury said. “And they want to have a good year, so they’re doing a real good job taking care of the younger ones and the younger ones are real supportive of the older ones.”

Against a Wildcat squad cultivating its own symbiosis of veterans and youth, Heritage Hills’ production arrived from a healthy variety of old and new.

During the Pats’ five-run fourth inning, junior Madison Gogel kicked things off with a hard-hit double to left field just under the outstretched glove of Erin Terwiske. Two batters later, Crane delivered a single to load the bases before sophomore Rebeka Mercker looped a high fly to shallow center that couldn’t be corralled, plating two and awarding Heritage Hills a 2-1 advantage. After freshman Kayley Bauer beat the throw home on a groundball two batters later, senior Gina Wahl drew a walk and classmate Kayala Hoppenjans (2-for-3) slapped a two-RBI single up the middle to expand the advantage to 5-1.

“There was no doubt in our mind we could get it back,” Kralj said of fourth-inning surge after trailing early. “We know what our team is capable of.”

And that’s largely the sentiment Jasper coach Matt Pryor extended to his crew as well after the setback: The talent is there; the quandary is harnessing it.

Defensively, the Wildcats explored the entire spectrum of dazzling putouts and avoidable gaffes. In the bottom of the first inning, sophomore centerfielder Katelyn Hedinger gunned down a runner trying to score from third. And when Gogel skied a ball into shallow center with runners on second and third, Wildcat shortstop Nicolette Eckert reeled in a catch from knees with her back toward the plate, allowing Jasper (3-1) to escape the opening inning unscathed. The next frame, Eckert lunged to her right in shallow left field to rob Wahl of a line-drive single.

Yet later, Hedinger “worried about gunning the girl down at home before she (fielded) it or (caught) it,” Pryor said of a bobble that ushered in two Patriot runs in the fifth. Later, Eckert — who stole three bases and scored the Cats’ first run a double by Paige Werner in the third — coughed up a grounder, too.

“And these young sophomores, they’ve got to realize they are so fast. Their transfer is so quick that they’re going to make the throw, they’re going to get the player out,” Pryor said. “They’ve just got to settle down a little bit and be fluid. We get those nerves out and get a few games under our belt, I think we’ll start seeing our full potential.”

The other issue Pryor underlined came as a direct result of the Kralj-Crane connection, as the Patriot duo kept Jasper hitters off-balance and guessing for much of the night. All five of Kralj’s punch-outs materialized on called third strikes, evidence that Kralj “had us guessing, and that was our problem at the plate,” Pryor said.

“Batters will start guessing what she’s going to throw and then they freeze,” he said. “And that’s what a lot of our players did tonight was freeze instead of see that yellow thing coming at you and just swing at it.”

Kralj (2-0) yielded just one earned run for the Patriots, who swiped their second victory in as many contests and second straight over Jasper.

The Wildcats stranded six runners in scoring position, encapsulating the difference, per Pryor: Heritage Hills had timely hits and Jasper didn’t. Kralj hit her spots when she needed to. Jasper didn’t.

For Asbury, escaping the jams typified his team’s execution in pressure-packed situations. And if the two squads were to meet for a third straight year at sectional, it’ll be that type of performance that matters.

“We had to make decisions with people on base. That’s important. We had some at-bats where there was pressure. So that helps and that makes a difference as we move forward,” Asbury said. “And it’s good for them to know that, ”˜Hey, we’ve got to play our best when sectional comes or we’re going to get beaten,’ because all the teams in our sectional can beat us, obviously. So we’ve got to keep working and keep getting better and better and better so that we’re not playing our best until (sectional), if we get the chance to play these guys again.”

Contact Joe Jasinski

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