BREWER, Maine — Often, in a softball game where two talented pitchers are dominating, it can be the little things that make the difference. Penobscot Valley executed a few at just the right time Tuesday afternoon.
The second-ranked Howlers from Howland scored three eighth-inning runs on a bases-loaded hit batter, a passed ball and a fielder’s-choice grounder to scratch out a thrilling 3-0 Class D North regional final victory over top-ranked Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook at Coffin Field.
Those runs proved to be more than enough for Howlers freshman Leine McKechnie, who allowed only one hit while piling up 19 strikeouts and walking just one. She needed just 13 pitches to strike out the Warriors in order to close out the contest.
“She’s wise beyond her years, and she pitches like that,” said PVHS coach Pat Leonard, whose undefeated club (19-0) takes on South champ Richmond (19-0) in Saturday’s 4 p.m. state championship game at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.
“She’s a very strong lady, so when she gets focused she has that ability to tune anything out.”
Richmond, which beat Greenville 14-6 in the South regional final, has won 88 consecutive games since falling in the 2012 state title game to the Howlers. It’s PVHS’ first regional title since 2013.
Southern Aroostook concludes the season 15-3.
Warriors sophomore Kylie Vining had an outstanding game as well, wiggling her way out of several jams, including a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation in the top of the fifth.
The Howlers stranded nine baserunners on the day.
“She did a fine job pitching out of some tough innings,” said SAHS coach Robert Betschner, who noted McKechnie was the fastest pitcher the Warriors had seen all season.
“You look at how many times they had runners on and didn’t score, she did a fine job.”
The way Vining had his Howlers off-balance, Leonard adjusted his game-plan and instructed his players to focus on “small ball,” and it proved to be the winning remedy.
Kortney McKechnie got PVHS’ winning rally jump-started with a sharp single to the shortstop hole, and she wound up on third when the throw on Leine McKechnie’s sacrifice bunt was bobbled by the first baseman.
After Miranda Brown’s infield single loaded the bases, Eliza McKinnon was hit on the foot on a 1-0 pitch, scoring the first run of the day.
One pitch later, Leine McKechnie scored on a passed ball and Ryley Buck drove in the final run on a fielder’s-choice grounder.
“Our girls executed it flawlessly,” Leonard said. “We had a hard time hitting.”
The hard-throwing Leine McKechnie retired the first 11 Warriors, relying mainly on fastballs and rise balls.
“I just knew I had to pitch my game,” said Leine McKechnie, “and continue to pitch how I knew to pitch, and I knew my team would help me out batting-wise and fielding-wise.”
The only hit McKechnie gave up was a sharp single to right by Marissa Boulier in the fifth, which followed a walk and put runners on first and second with one out for the Warriors.
But McKechnie again showed the bulldog mentality and struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning.
Vining, who scattered five hits and recorded 13 strikeouts, was almost as tough, and had the Howlers off-balance. She got out of the bases-loaded jam by inducing a popup to second, a grounder to the circle on which she beat a PVHS runner to the plate for the force, and a strikeout.
“She really brought her ‘A’ game today against us,” said Leonard. “It showed that she had fortitude and she was determined to win just as much.”
But the Howlers’ will showed up when it mattered most.
“There’s a calm about this whole team,” Leonard said. “I didn’t say [much] and look what they did, they pulled out the win.”
“Inning after inning we kept inching closer and closer, we were timing [Vining] up and it was just a matter of time before we started getting balls into play,” Leine McKechnie said.
The game’s lone repeat hitter was PVHS leadoff hitter Lexi Ireland, who hit two singles and a double.