PICKERINGTON – Danville head coach Charlie Duncan said preparing for Newark Catholic felt like looking in the mirror.
The Green Wave started five freshmen, just like his Blue Devils. They featured a senior, left-handed pitcher (just like Danville's Maddy Wine). And both teams had defied expectations to reach this point – the Div. IV regional semifinals, sitting two wins away from state.
GALLERY: Danville vs. Newark Catholic softball – Div. IV regional semifinals
Danville fell to Newark Catholic, 11-10, in the Div. IV regional semifinals on Wednesday at Pickerington Central High School. The Blue Devils finished the season 20-8, having won their sixth straight district title.
The game Wednesday afternoon at Pickerington Central High School played out accordingly.
Danville and Newark Catholic went down to the wire, scoring a combined 21 runs in a game that featured four lead changes. The Green Wave emerged victorious by the slimmest of margins, 11-10, and will move on to face Peebles in the regional championship on Saturday afternoon.
Danville will head home to reflect on a season that included 20 wins (just the seventh time in school history), a district title (the program's sixth in a row), and a great deal of hope for the future.
"Our goal is always to get to Akron, but what a run," Duncan said Wednesday. "What a run these girls had.”
Duncan said he was most proud of his team's resilience. After falling behind 7-2 in the top of the second inning, the Blue Devils didn't hang their heads. Instead, they came roaring back.
Sophomore Sophie Snively doubled to center field in the bottom of the second, beginning a two-out rally that would bring the blue-and-white crowd to its feet. Freshman Broegan Staats singled to bring Snively home, then scored moments later on a bases-loaded RBI from fellow freshman Jaylyn Smith.
The Blue Devils weren't done yet. Sophomore Taryn Mickley flew out to deep center field, plating a runner from third. Wine singled to right moments later, tying the game at 7 as two Blue Devils reached home.
"I’m just so dang proud of this team and the way we came through this season and battled through adversity ..." Duncan said. "I mean, this isn’t the only game we had to come back from. They never give up.”
Danville took the lead in the bottom of the fourth, as an error scored junior Keaura Shilling from third.
But Newark Catholic powered back in the top of the fifth. Freshman Kylie Gibson smacked a pitch to left field, scoring runners from second and third with the bases loaded. The Green Wave grew their lead moments later, as an infield throwing error plated two more runners.
Danville chipped away at the deficit in the bottom of the sixth. After stranding two runners in scoring position in the fifth inning, the Blue Devils capitalized. Mickley lifted a two-run homer to center field, scoring Smith and bringing the Devils within 1.
But they couldn't close the deal in the bottom of the seventh. Newark Catholic pitcher Maddie Brothers kept Danville off the base-paths, and the senior threw her glove in the air when the final out was recorded.
The Green Wave, making their first regional appearance since 2013, would advance to the round of 8.
“It’s unbelievable for our girls ..." said Newark Catholic co-head coach Rob Smith, who credited colleague Devani Adam with the team's progress this season.
"I’m telling you – 2-8? We could’ve folded. We could’ve folded. 2-8 on the season. I told them from day one, you’ve got a chance. Keep competing. Believe in yourself and believe in each other."
Smith said Danville's reputation in central Ohio – having won 14 district titles, two regional titles and a state championship – made Wednesday's victory even more meaningful.
"That’s a big-time program right there ..." Smith said. "They’ve owned us in softball. And I told (the team), ‘They’ve completely owned us in softball, and this is a big step for us. And we’re not finished.’”
Newark Catholic used patience and timely hitting to jump out to a big lead early.
After Mickley and Wine drove in runs in the bottom of the first inning, putting Danville up 2-0, the Green Wave responded. They used two walks and a single to load the bases with no outs in the top of the second, forcing Danville to substitute freshman Grace Gronberg for Wine at the circle.
Freshman Ava Heffley grounded out to second, scoring Madisyn Sheppard from third and getting the Green Wave on the board. Then, with two outs and the bases loaded, the visitors let loose.
Newark Catholic rattled off six straight runs – including two on bases-loaded walks and one on an infield error – to take a 7-2 lead. The bleachers rumbled as Sheppard capped off the rally with an RBI triple to right field.
“We stayed with the gameplan: ‘Make sure they throw strikes, don’t swing at balls right now … They’ve not thrown two strikes in a row for 18 batters, and that’s the truth.’ That was our strategy," Smith said. "We’ve got five freshmen who start. And they believed in us, they believed in the system and kept going.”
Danville walked 12 batters on Wednesday, which Duncan said was a season-high. The team struggled to corral Newark Catholic defensively, and it proved costly late.
"I truly thought we were probably the better team defensively, and then we didn’t show that tonight," Duncan said. " I knew we were going to hit – that wasn’t gonna be a problem. We just had to play defense. I mean, we’ve been preaching it all year long, and it wasn’t quite our best performance today."
Still, Duncan said he was proud of his team. The Blue Devils made it back to regionals this spring despite boasting one of the youngest rosters in the area, starting five freshmen and two sophomores.
"I told them, ‘This wasn’t our best game, but I’m not gonna dwell on that right now.’ I’m gonna dwell on (how) this is a team that would come in with one senior (and) two juniors – playing in the KMAC, one of the toughest conferences in the state of Ohio – and they won 20 ball games …" Duncan said.
"If you would’ve told me that we were gonna do that, I’ll take it every day, all day."
Wine was the team's lone senior this season. And while her final high school pitching start didn't go as planned, Duncan said her value to the team this season was immeasurable.
“Maddy Wine has been the glue that held us together all year long," Duncan said. "She’s not only a leader, she’s been a coach. I think she’s helped Grace (Gronberg) along, to get her ready for this situation and to pass the torch to her next year.
"Maddy’s definitely going to be one that we’re going to miss. I mean, she’s the only one … but if you tell me I’m going to have one senior, that’s the one I’m picking every day, all day.”
Both Duncan and Smith noted that, given the youth on the field Wednesday, this might not be the last time these two teams meet in the postseason. Danville and Newark Catholic will return the bulk of their rosters next year, and may very well see each other again in May.
For now, however, the Green Wave will advance. One win separates them from the state's biggest stage.
“This is just big for Newark Catholic, but you can’t settle for this," Smith said. "We’ve got another game coming."