NEW RIEGEL — The fourth inning will haunt Colonel Crawford for the next 10 months.
With two outs and Margaretta runners on second and third in Saturday's Division III district championship, a routine fly ball to left field was grabbed by the wind and dropped next to Madison Cobb, allowing two runs to score. The Polar Bears added a third in the next at-bat off another outfield error before a groundout ended the inning.
But the damage was done and No. 1 Margaretta hoisted a softball district championship trophy for the first time since 1992, beating the No. 3 Eagles 3-1 at New Riegel High School.
“This is a big deal for these kids and I’m excited to be a part of this,” Margaretta coach Dale Dawson said.
And while one team was overjoyed, the Eagles knew just how close they were to making a return to the regional after a five-year absence.
“One inning and two or three plays," Colonel Crawford coach Sarah Fraser said. "We make those plays like we normally do ... those outfielders normally catch everything near them. It’s not their fault by any means, we didn’t hit either.
"But that one inning ... we score a run in the [sixth] and we could’ve potentially won 1-0.”
Just as Thursday's district semifinal against Edison went, both teams struggled to string together offense Saturday morning. On a day when both pitchers combined for 14 strikeouts and allowed just six hits, whoever got a lucky break was going to be the one moving on.
Margaretta got that lucky break. But Dawson said a lot of that had to do with paying attention to every single moment of the game.
“We try to pride ourselves on being smart," he said. "Sometimes you don’t always have the best athletes on the field, but you can control being the smartest team and being opportunistic. Right place at the right time, communicating … if you do those things, luck will find you and breaks will find you. We found ourselves in the right place at the right time.
“I’m so proud of these girls. We talk about trying to be consistent in our play and consistent with our softball IQ. This was just another example of that. We came out, didn’t try to do anything that was uncharacteristic for [Mariah Fields]. She threw her game, our defense played well, 1-through-9 someone always steps up to get a big hit, we got some hits and everyone played smart.”
Fields threw 94 pitches — 64 strikes — with eight strikeouts, four hits allowed, one unearned run and one walk. Though she wasn't the dominant strike-thrower Edison's Kira Appeman was on Thursday, Fields still kept the Eagles wrong-footed throughout most of the contest.
“It was different, she threw us inside where Edison’s pitcher did not," Fraser said. "She has a great rise ball, we talked about that and still fell for it. We just didn’t adjust the way I hoped we would.”
Fields' growth from last season to now is a major reason why the Polar Bears are district champions for the first time in three decades. Her standup double to score Phoebe Dreshel and Alayna Pemberton certainly helped, too.
“She’s really coachable," Dawson said. "We’ve sat down and had conversations about how to pitch, how to approach hitters … and just get smarter about how we throw pitches and call the game. And she really bought into it. If you look at her physical stature, she doesn’t look like a dominant pitcher, but the kid competes quietly, stays even, spins the ball and is just a tremendous competitor.”
And what allowed her to have that spurt of offensive success in the fourth started with Lilly Edwards taking a pitch to the face mask. Edwards was eventually caught at home during Pemberton's single, but her presence on base changes everything.
“Her just getting on base — even before she got thrown out — if Addie [Kromer] or Lilly get on with their speed, we feel pretty good about things happening," said Dawson. "I think it changes the other team’s approach, how they throw to Phoebe, Alayna and Mariah. They get more strikes and fastballs, so we feel good when they get on that we have a chance to get a rally going."
Colonel Crawford responded in the sixth as Kaylyn Risner singled and advanced to second on a fielding error. She was then driven in by Nettie Gallant's hard-hit single that — were it not for an unlucky gust of wind in the outfield — might've been all the Eagles needed to secure a spot in the Elida regional.
“The wind was tough," Fraser said. "It played a factor in one of Alivia’s [Studer] hits Thursday and played a factor in all of them. It would get up there, we dropped and it happened to carry some out to left. It was definitely a factor.”
A concern coming into the district championship was how Frietchen's arm would hold up after going the distance in Thursday's 11-inning district semifinal win over Edison — she had never pitched more than seven prior to that. But all concerns were immediately quashed as she put on a clinic throwing the ball just 68 times — 56 of which were strikes — allowing two hits, three unearned runs and striking out six.
“She came ready to win and pitched good enough to win," Fraser said. "That’s the crappy part about this sport, you can pitch a no-hitter and still lose. Lauren pitched a great game.”
The loss brings an end to the careers of Studer, Risner and district semifinal hero Atley Crabaugh. They've all been instrumental to the team's success over the past two seasons.
“This senior class was special to me because my first year coaching was their first year," Fraser said. "This is the first group I’ve seen for four years — minus the COVID year — but they’ll always have a special place in my heart for that reason.”
But the future is still bright in North Robinson. Six starters will return with two district appearances under their belts. And when the Eagles look back on this season, they'll see a lot was accomplished.
“We crushed some team goals," Fraser said. "Got a Northern 10 championship, we were sectional champions and made it one step away from regionals.
“[But] we’re still young, and we have some work to do. It all starts in the offseason, not in February or the beginning of the season, we really need to buy in and get that work done before the season starts. For the most part, they did, and they will continue that.”
State-ranked Margaretta's attention now shifts to Wednesday's regional semifinal against Van Buren. But for now, having just completed the rare yearlong district sweep matching titles won by volleyball and basketball, the Polar Bears will celebrate.
“They set the bar high," Dawson said of volleyball and basketball. "And the cool thing is there are some crossover athletes, but not a lot. We’re blessed at the school to have a tremendous group of athletes coming through and I’m blessed to take the job at the right time.”
This article originally appeared on Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum: Margaretta softball tops Col. Crawford, first district title since '92