By BRIAN LESTER
COLUMBUS GROVE — Players shouted words of encouragement inside the Columbus Grove dugout as Brooke Hoffman stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of a riveting tournament game.
There were two outs against the Bulldogs and the score was tied in a thrilling Division III sectional semifinal that had been filled with plenty of shifts in momentum.
Finally, though, Hoffman ended the drama, ripping a line drive toward third that pushed Hope Schroeder across the plate and lifted Columbus Grove to a 7-6 victory over Northwest Conference rival Bluffton Tuesday afternoon.
The Bulldogs (14-7) have been confident all season, and even in a pressure-packed game, they refused to let their confidence become rattled as they extended their postseason run for at least one more day.
“We knew it was going to be close. Both teams played hard,” Columbus Grove head coach Travis Gallmeier said. “But one thing I’ve told the girls all year is that we can never quit. We always have to keep moving and keep believing. It’s really sunk in. We’ve battled back a lot this season, and we did a heck of a job today.”
The Pirates (11-4) erased a 6-4 deficit in the top of the seventh but were unable to capitalize in extra innings despite having chances, including in the eighth when it had runners at second and third. Schroeder got Mackayla Wilson to strike out, though, to end the threat.
Schroeder opened the ninth by drawing a walk and Micah Stechschulte laid down a bunt in front of the pitcher to reach first base while advancing Schroeder to second. After two straight outs, Hoffman stepped up and delivered the clutch hit.
“When you put it in play, you never know what can happen,” Gallmeier said. “You saw that with the big hit by Brooke. It was a hard shot. It worked out for us. But don’t take anything away from Bluffton. They have a heck of a team.”
For the Pirates, it was indeed a tough loss to deal with.
“It’s tough to lose,” Bluffton head coach Tony Rumer said. “We had our chances, but someone had to win, and unfortunately it wasn’t us. We had aspirations of making a nice run in the tournament. We’re disappointed it came to an end.”
The game was in danger of not being played. Storm clouds rolled in shortly before the 5 p.m. start and rain fell steadily. However, the rain let up quickly and the game was never delayed. And for the next two hours, the Bulldogs and Pirates went back and forth in a tight battle.
The Pirates led first, taking a 1-0 lead when Lauren Parkins drove in a run with a sacrifice bunt.
The Bulldogs answered when Schroeder swung hard at a pitch and launched the ball over the fence in left for a two-run home run that put Columbus Grove on top 2-1.
Bluffton took the lead back in the third. A sacrifice bunt by Maddie Willis tied the game at 2-2 and Wilson drove in a run with a base hit to push the Pirates in front 3-2.
Columbus Grove tied the game at 3-3 in the third and moved ahead 4-3 in the fourth on a run-scoring hit by Mackenzie Wurth.
Bluffton tied the game at 4-4 in the sixth but the Bulldogs responded in their half of the sixth to take control and put themselves on the verge of a victory.
Wurth came through with her second hit of the day, driving in a run as well to break the tie, and a sacrifice fly by Kyrah Yinger brought another run across as the Bulldogs surged in front 6-4.
Bluffton scored twice in the seventh to tie the game. The Pirates simply couldn’t get the big run when they needed it at the end.
“You have to capitalize when you get opportunities,” Rumer said. “They made one extra play than we did, and that was the difference in a good, hard-fought battle.”
Schroeder earned the win as she went the distance. She gave up five hits and four earned runs while striking out seven and walking eight.
“Hope has been the person we have gone to all year in the circle,” Gallmeier said. “She has pitched really well this season, and it helps that she has a good defense behind her. It was a great team effort.”
Schroeder racked up two hits, as did Wurth. The Bulldogs finished with 10 in all. Cheyenne Treen tallied two hits to pace the Pirates. Sami Fruchey pitched the entire game for the Pirates and allowed five earned runs. She struck out three and walked six.
The Bulldogs now advance to play Allen East on Friday in a sectional final.
“All you can ask for is to move on,” Gallmeier said. “We’re looking forward to playing again.”
By BRIAN LESTER