STANDISH, Maine — Prior to Saturday’s state Class D high school softball championship game, Penobscot Valley coach Patrick Leonard felt his team was ready for the challenge.
It was the ultimate challenge for the Howlers, facing four-time defending champion Richmond, which hadn’t lost a game since falling to Penobscot Valley in the 2012 title game. The Bobcats entered the contest riding an 88-game winning streak, with a senior class that had never experienced a softball defeat.
That is, until Howlers freshman pitcher Leine McKechnie took over. She hit and pitched her team to a stunning 4-0 victory at St. Joseph’s College to finish with a perfect 20-0 mark.
Richmond wound up 18-1.
How good was McKechnie? In the circle, she was dominating, striking out 11, walking three and keeping the potent Bobcats offense without a hit. She retired the final 14 hitters she faced.
Only one Bobcat hit the ball out of the infield, a harmless fly ball by Caitlin Kendrick to right field to open the seventh inning.
It was McKechnie’s bat that provided the fatal blow to Richmond, a long three-run home run that was still rising when it cleared the left-center-field wall, traveling an estimated 300 feet.
“We were really on today and knew that we had to come out hard if we wanted to beat this team,” said McKechnie. “I knew I had to go out on the mound and pitch my game. I have been having a hard time hitting the past couple of weeks, and I knew that I needed to take a deep breath in the box, I slowed down my swing and it helped.”
“She knew what to do and she did that today,” said Richmond junior catcher/pitcher Sydney Underhill-Tilton.
The game was scoreless through six innings, but the Howlers finally took advantage of their opportunities. Morgan Banks singled to right field with one out and Lexi Ireland, who was 3-for-3 at the plate, was hit by an Underhill-Tilton pitch.
Meranda Martin, who pitched the first four innings for the Bobcats, returned to the circle to face Erynn Williams, who hit a ground ball that glanced off a glove and into center field, with Banks sliding into home with the game’s first run.
Next came McKechnie, who drove a 2-1 pitch from Martin out of Bailey Field for a 4-0 lead.
“She had a hell of game, a hell of player and someone fun to watch,” said Richmond coach Tony Martin of McKechnie.
“Yeah, we lost 4-0 today. But all these girls kept their heads up high. The girls played the game very well, and 88 games is a great streak.”
“They are well-coached and the record speaks for itself,” said Leonard of the Bobcats. “It was the 2012 season that we were able to take (Richmond) out for the title, and now in 2017 we were able to do it and end with a perfect 20-0 season.”
“It was a great run. I am super proud of these girls and everything that we have done,” said Richmond senior third baseman Camryn Hurley.
Martin and McKechnie took different routes to four scoreless innings pitched. The Howlers had four singles and a walk against the Richmond senior, but failed to crack the scoreboard as Penobscot Valley struck out eight times and left five runners on base.
McKechnie struck out the side in the first inning, working around a walk to Underhill-Tilton. After a 1-2-3 second, she struggled with her control, throwing 12 balls on 17 pitches and walking both Kaylee Williams and Martin with one out. But a strikeout and a ground ball to second ended the threat.
It was the last time the Bobcats had a base runner.
Underhill-Tilton relieved to begin the fifth for Richmond. Ireland tripled with one out, but stayed there as Underhill-Tilton retired the next two Penobscot Valley hitters on comebackers.
“I knew that we had to stay tough and if we did that, we could hold them,” said McKechnie. “I really thought this game was going to go into extra innings. We were doing well fielding, they were doing well fielding. I thought we might still be playing.”
Ryley Buck was 2-for-3 for the Howlers, while Elizabeth McKinnon singled and stole two bases.
Martin combined to throw 4 2/3 innings with eight strikeouts, one walk and six hits allowed in her two stints.
Underhill-Tilton picked up two strikeouts and allowed four hits in 2 1/3 frames.