CENTERBURG — The matchup that everyone had anticipated all year between Lancaster, ranked No. 2 in the state, and No. 3 ranked Watkins Memorial, lived up to its billing.
The Warriors set the tone early by belting back-to-back home runs from leadoff hitter Taylor Gerhardt and Hannah Hunt followed to give Watkins Memorial a quick 2-0 lead. From there, the Warriors rode the arm of super sophomore Carsyn Cassady to keep the hard-hitting Lady Gales off-balance in a 3-1 victory in Saturday’s Division I regional final at Centerburg High School.
“When you come out and get two runs in the first inning, it just kind of sets the tone, and it puts all the pressure on the other team,” Watkins Memorial coach Mike Jellison said. “We felt like we had a little bit of an advantage because we have been in a lot of tough games and played an amazingly hard schedule to prepare for this situation. We just told our kids to play relaxed, it’s going to be a long ballgame, but we’ve been here before. But there is no doubt you couldn’t have scripted it any better to get off to that kind of start.”
The Warriors (28-2) will be making their second consecutive trip to the final four after finishing as state runner-up in 2021. They will face Holland Springfield, from suburban Toledo, at 3 p.m. Thursday at Akron’s Firestone Stadium.
“The momentum that first home run gave me, got me excited to go up there in the box and start hitting the ball,” Hunt said.
It marked the second straight year the Warriors have eliminated the Gales (25-2) from the tournament. A year ago, Watkins Memorial knocked them out in the regional semifinals.
On Saturday, the Warriors' early homers seemed to put Lancaster on its heels the rest of the way.
“It was unreal, not only scoring two runs, but to have back-to-back home runs, I think that made a huge difference,” Cassady said. “We knew if we scored first, it would set the tone and put them a little bit of doubt in their minds because we beat them last year. I think we had the upper hand on them because we have been here before, and we have been in so many pressure situations. We were ready for the moment.”
Cassady wasn’t overpowering, allowing six hits with five strikeouts and four walks, but she escaped several jams with timely pitches.
Lancaster had two lead-off doubles to start innings and never scored and had five runners in scoring position, only to see one run score. Overall, the Gales left 10 nine runners on base.
“We knew Lancaster would battle back because they are a great hitting team,” Jellison said. “They had a lot of people on base and Carsyn was able to get out of tight spots. She loves to pitch under pressure. And when people are on base, she seems to focus even more when she is in tight spots. She was able to make some quality pitches with people on base.”
It was a frustrating day for the Gales with so many missed chances with runners in scoring position, only to struggle to find with clutch hits.
“We talk a lot about how we have to come out and set the tone and they had the energy — and they obviously set the tone and we did not,” Lancaster coach Allie Kinniard said. “We have struggled with our hitting the last five or six games and we have worked a lot on our hitting the last couple of days. I thought it was going to make the difference, but we just couldn’t get it done.”
The Warriors took a 3-0 lead in the third inning when Lancaster starter Reese Poston walked the first two batters. After she was relieved by freshman Ashlin Mowery, Jordan Wycoff greeted her with an RBI single up the middle.
Lancaster finally cashed in during the fourth to cut the deficit to 3-1 when Zhari Hill hit a base hit down the left field line to score Jenna Spurling, who had singled earlier in the inning. However, the Gales would leave two runners stranded.
Lancaster appeared to have a rally cooking in the top of the fifth when Poston led off with a double, but Cassady retired the side with three straight popouts. The Gales had two runners on in the sixth and didn’t score and in the seventh inning, Cassady retired the side.
Tom Wilson is a sports reporter for the Lancaster Eagle Gazette. Contact him at 740-689-5150 or via email at email@example.com for comments or story tips. Follow him on Twitter @twil2323.
This article originally appeared on Lancaster Eagle-Gazette: Watkins Memorial sets the tone early in a 3-1 regional final win over Lancaster