FREDERICKTOWN — As soon as she made contact – the barrel of her aluminum bat striking the ball as it crossed the plate – Makayla Linkous was off to the races.

The Cardington senior knew this hit would drive home runners from second and third. But as she rounded first, and she saw the ball had made it to the left field fence, she began to think bigger.

She picked up speed as she rounded second, with Fredericktown’s outfielders struggling to corral the missile. Then, as Linkous approached third, her head coach began waving his arms to the right.

He was sending her home.

Linkous made it in plenty of time. She slid in safe before the throw, a cloud of dust in her wake.

She had just hit an inside-the-park home run – an extraordinarily rare feat at the varsity level, akin to a hole-in-one in golf or a half-court shot in basketball.

And she’d done so at a pivotal moment in the game. The hit extended Cardington’s lead to 6-1 in the top of the fourth inning, providing the offensive spark that would eventually carry the Pirates to a 12-1 win Thursday after five innings of play.

When Linkous popped up from the dirt, her black pants now coated in dust, she turned to her coach on the third-base line. And she let out a primal roar that could be heard from here to Morrow County.

“Let’s goooo!!!!” Linkous belted, her teammates jumping in excitement behind her. “Let’s. Gooooo!!!”

It wasn’t just the play that Linkous was excited about. It was the fact that, in that moment, Cardington had cracked the code. After a slow start, the Pirates were rolling once again.

And they were well on their way to a ninth straight conference title.

“It means a ton because it’s the first thing – it’s the first team goal that we have, is to win the (Knox-Morrow Athletic Conference),” Cardington head coach Tod Brininger said afterwards.

“We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had a great stretch of players for nine years – or 10 years, 11 years, really – and this team, or these seniors at least, this is number three for them, with the missed year.

“And it’s those freshmen and sophomores, getting a taste of it, too, and knowing, ‘Hey, this is what Cardington softball does and is.’ It means a ton for us because it’s a first step.”

The Pirates (16-0, 10-0) clinched a share of their fourth straight KMAC title on Thursday, completing the season sweep of second-place Fredericktown (9-5, 6-2) after winning at home Wednesday by an identical score: 12-1 in five innings.

The program has won nine straight conference titles, dating back to 2014, when the Pirates participated in the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference.

Cardington will round out KMAC play next week with two games against arch-rival Mount Gilead (3-7, 0-6). A win Monday – or Wednesday – would give the Pirates the conference title outright.

“We’ve just hit our stride at the perfect time,” said Brininger, whose Pirates swept traditional power Danville last week (outscoring the Blue Devils 23-1) and are currently ranked first in the state in Division III.

“And these guys know – I mean, day one, I start talking about a state championship. That’s what I talk about. That’s our goal – that’s our eventual goal. We’ve got KMAC, we’ve got district, we’ve got regional and then we’ve got state,” he continued.

“Those are our goals, they know it, and that’s what they listed in their goals. Boom; boom; boom; boom.”

With Thursday’s win, the Pirates were able to check that first goal off the list. 

How it unfolded

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the Pirates on Thursday.

The Freddies were able to contain and compete with the state’s top-ranked team early on. Freshman pitcher Kennedy Algire surrendered two runs on three hits through the first three innings, and her offense helped out, narrowing the margin to 2-1 in the bottom of the second.

Fredericktown had a chance to tie – or take the lead – in the bottom of the third. Freshman Taylor Brown stood on second base and sophomore Jesenia Montalvo stood on first base with two outs.

When senior Lainy Partington rocketed a ball to left field, Fredericktown head coach Jeff Keener chose to send Brown home from third, aiming to tie the game. But Dana Bertke, Cardington’s senior left-fielder, had other ideas.

She threw what Brininger later described as “just a dime” – a laser, right into the glove of senior catcher Emalee Artz, who tagged Brown out with time to spare in a dust-filled play at the plate.

The out ended the inning. Fredericktown would come away with two base hits but no runs against Cardington’s all-Ohioan ace, sophomore Genevieve Longsdorf, and the Pirates would maintain their 2-1 lead.

At that point, Keener said, the game’s dynamic shifted.

“I was the one that messed up, sending her home on that play,” the head coach said. “I should have stopped her, got the bases loaded, and then let my senior see what she could’ve done. And I think that’s where our bubble busted.”

The Pirates built on this momentum in the top half of the fourth.

Senior Kayleigh Ufferman dropped a single into left field, scoring a runner from third, and Artz laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance runners to second and third with two outs. That set up Linkous’ inside-the-park masterpiece, which set the visiting dugout ablaze and left Fredericktown stunned.

“The excitement today was awesome,” Brininger said of his team’s energy. The Pirates were loud and communicative all night long, playing with the tournament-level energy in late April.

“I mean, we’ve struggled with that – it’s been 40 degrees and they’re all curled up in blankets,” he said with a laugh. “But tonight was great, to get that excitement level, and Fredericktown gave us a game. They came out trying to compete and they did. So it was nice. That little run was awesome.”

It was around this time that Longsdorf settled in defensively. She surrendered no runs on three hits over the game’s final two innings, striking out two batters and letting her defense handle the rest.

And she helped her own cause in the top of the fifth, smacking a solo home run to center field that grew the lead to 7-1. That began a two-out rally that included RBI singles from Ufferman and Artz, which made it 10-1, and a triple from Bertke down the right-field line that brought two more home and set the final margin.

Key takeaways

Keener said defensive errors cost his team Thursday, just as they did during Wednesday’s loss.

“A good team like that, you can’t give them errors,” he said. “They just jump all over you and keep going.”

Brininger attributed the sweep – and particularly Thursday’s win – to his team’s experience. The Pirates have eight seniors on their roster, including four who are multi-year starters and have committed to play college softball next year.

This group is used to coming through in big moments, he said, and they showed that once again this week.

“Our top four are all seniors, all going to play in college, they’ve been in big games. All of them played as freshmen – I mean, they all played as freshmen on a state finals team,” Brininger said.

“So they’ve experienced that, and hopefully they can pass that along to (the team’s underclassmen). Genevieve hasn’t been (to state) – she’s been to a regional final, but she hasn’t been to that next step. So hopefully they can kind of pull them along and show them what it’s all about, and tonight was it.”

Fredericktown still has a chance to claim a share of the conference title, if it wins its last four games and if Mount Gilead sweeps Cardington next week. And even if that doesn’t happen, the Freddies are well-positioned to take second place, with Centerburg (3-3) being the closest competitor.

Keener hopes his team will be able to learn from this week’s experience, going toe-to-toe twice with the top-ranked team in the state.

“I think it gets us ready for tournament play. My God, (they’re) No. 1 in the state – you know, that changes our intensity level,” Keener said.

“Now we’ve got a target on our back because now we can try to get second place, and I’d take second place to those guys. I would’ve liked to have split, but we’ll take second place. Now we’ve gotta play some ball and keep the intensity up.”

Cardington, meanwhile, will look to clinch the conference title outright next week. And after that, Brininger said his team’s focus will shift immediately to the postseason.

“I just told them out here … we’ve got two big games against Mount Gilead next week – obviously rivalry games, so you never know – and we’re gonna treat every single game after that as a tournament game,” Brininger said.

“I mean, these are tournament games for us.”

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