Mason’s Liz Hillen couldn’t shake a case of the nerves preceding her second at-bat in a scoreless Division I regional championship game against Lebanon at Northmont High.
The Comets were down to their final out in the top of the fourth inning when Hillen approached the plate.
“Senior Sami Parave grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘Liz, you can do this. I know you can.’ I just went up there and felt it right off the bat,” Hillen said.
The junior pounded a rise ball over the fence in left field for a solo home run that proved to be the game-winner in Mason’s 1-0 thriller victory over the Warriors Saturday afternoon.
Buoyed by stellar defense, the Comets (23-7) ended Lebanon’s season (26-3) and clinched a state semifinal berth for the first time since 2008. Mason faces Elyria in Thursday’s 12:30 p.m. semifinal at Akron’s Firestone Stadium.
The Comets burst into celebration after the final out against the Warriors. Pitcher Tory Stewart jumped into the arms of catcher Megan Warren as other Comets players hugged, cheered and wept.
“I’m so proud of this team and love every single person. We have the best chemistry, and I feel like it showed today,” Stewart said. “Words cannot describe how happy I am right now.”
Lebanon, ranked second in the final Division I state poll, racked up seven hits and twice loaded the bases. The team was denied a run despite coming close to scoring in the bottom of the first.
Sam Showalter, poised at second after a leadoff double, took off after Kaitlyn Bergman hit the ball up the middle. What happened next initiated a ruling that divided both camps.
Mason shortstop Samantha Hayner tried to field the ball as Showalter attempted to run to third. The ball dribbled past Hayner and into the outfield before being corralled by center fielder Parave, who fired home and thwarted Showalter’s attempt to cross the plate.
The third base umpire appeared to waffle on whether there was interference by Hayner (as Lebanon contended) or not (as Mason said). Lebanon coach Brian Kindell and Mason coach Liann Muff engaged in heated discussions with the umpires before an OHSAA umpire evaluator ruled against obstruction.
“Our shortstop was making a play on that ball and diving up the middle. No interference was called at the time, frankly because there wasn’t,” Muff said. “The defense has the right to make the play. We threw her out at home.”
In the end, Kindell said it wasn’t the deciding factor in the game.
“That was obviously a big call that I don’t understand, but we had plenty of chances after that. We had six other innings we could have done something but just didn’t,” Kindell said.
Since the Comets had already faced Lebanon pitching ace Kim Frank in a scrimmage and regular-season game, Kindell turned to right-hander Tara Trainer to change things up in the regional final. Trainer, a sophomore, missed about five weeks of the season following a car accident and was sidelined another week with a strained hamstring.
She finished the afternoon with nine strikeouts, including four that stranded Comets baserunners.
But Lebanon was unable to score, even after loading the bases in the fourth and fifth innings. Mason’s defense responded each time to remain in control.
Hillen and Stewart praised seniors Hayner, Parave, Warren, Macy Hubbard and Alex Johnson – who graduate today – for leading the way all season.
“I’ve been playing with these girls since sixth grade, so it’s a big deal to get to the Final Four,” Parave said. “It’s just an amazing feeling.” ■
WP: Tory Stewart (20-7), 2 Ks. LP-Trainer (3-1), 9Ks. Hitting leaders: M-Hillen HR; L-Showalter 2B; Bergman 2-2; Kayla Frank 2-4. Records: M 23-7, L 26-3.