By JAMIE BAKER
ELIDA — Fifteen games into the season, it might have seemed like Van Buren’s softball season was going nowhere.
Fast forward a month and the Black Knights are in position to play for a district championship.
Van Buren broke a scoreless tie with a six-run fifth inning on its way to Wednesday’s 6-3 win over North Baltimore in a Division IV district softball semifinal at Elida’s Dorothy Edwards Field.
With the win, Van Buren (15-12) will take on Patrick Henry (19-3) at 5 p.m. Friday at Elida for the district title and a spot in next week’s Division IV regional at Findlay’s Marathon Diamonds.
A 12-loss team making the district final might be improbable. But the Black Knights have learned many lessons from their struggles this season, and those have served them well in the postseason.
“We talk about the losses. Every time we lose a game we want to learn something from it and try apply what we’ve learned in our next game. I think the girls have done very well with that this year,” Van Buren coach Stacy Sharp said.
“We lost a lot of close games and at one time we were 5-10. We continued to battle and believe and here we are.”
The Black Knights got there, but the Tigers certainly didn’t make it easy for them.
Locked in a scoreless tie through 4½ innings, an error helped jump start Van Buren’s offense in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Van Buren’s Robyn Flick opened the inning with a single before North Baltimore third baseman Jasmine Bretz’ throw to first was wild on a Samantha Hagans grounder.
Abbey Phillips followed with a single to score Flick.
Pitcher Nichole Miller, who was 3 for 4 on the day, added an RBI single to score pinch-runner Morgan Drake. Erin Neall reached on a fielder’s choice. and Olivia Sattler followed with a single to load the bases. Miller crossed the plate on a wild pitch before freshman Kila Fultz came up big by and blasted a 2-run triple to push the Knights’ lead to 5-0.
Fultz’ hit chased North Baltimore starter Cheyenne Hernandez who allowed six runs, four earned on nine hits with a walk and seven strikeouts. Kelcie Bean came on to pitch and yielded an RBI single to Paige Sudlow before getting out of the inning.
“The wheels just kind of came off for us in that inning,” North Baltimore coach Frankie Hernandez said. “We had a few chances in the game and we just couldn’t capitalize like we could have, and in that inning, they were able to capitalize.”
The Tigers (10-14) weren’t about to go quietly, making things interesting in the sixth inning.
North Baltimore’s Hanna Brian opened the frame with a double and came around to score on an error by shortstop Brylie Rampe that allowed Rachel Peters to reach first.
Hernandez got to first on an infield single before Miller buckled down. She fanned Bretz and Makayla Rein before Bailey Boyer stroked a two-run single to right to close the gap to 6-3.
Miller got Bean to pop out to Rampe to end the inning and the Tigers’ final scoring threat for the game.
“Basically, I was just thinking that we had to get out of this jam,” said Miller, who allowed three runs on four hits with a walk and nine strikeouts. “I knew I could rely on my teammates and we were able to get through it.”
Next up for the Black Knights is a rematch with Patrick Henry. The Patriots blanked Van Buren 4-0 when the two teams met April 1 in the second game of the season.
“This is the first time we’ve gotten past the sectional finals in my nine years as coach here,” Sharp said. “We’re really excited the girls have worked hard to get here and I’m really proud of the way they’ve played all season.”
North Baltimore 000 003 0 — 3 4 1
Van Buren 000 060 x — 6 10 2
WP — Miller. LP — Hernandez. top hitters: (VB) Miller 3-1B, RBI; Fultz 3B, 2 RBI; Flick 2-1B; Phillips 1B, RBI. (NB) Brian 2B; Boyer 1B, 2 RBI.
records: Van Buren 15-12, North Baltimore 10-14.
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