By DEREK TAYLOR
DAILY MAIL PREPS EDITOR
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Herbert Hoover had all the offense it needed by the top of the second inning in the Class AA softball Region 4 championship game Thursday.
For six more innings after Huskies pitcher Allison Rager gave herself a one-run lead by scoring in the bottom of the first, it was up to the Huskies’ defense to eliminate two-time defending state champion Wayne.
This time, that defense did not disappoint.
Senior All-State outfielder Mikayla Craze made a circus catch off a well-hit ball by Wayne cleanup hitter Alli Maynard to start the second, and Rager kept the Pioneers at bay the rest of the way as Hoover punched its ticket to the state tournament for the first time since 2005 with a 1-0 win in Falling Rock.
“Oh my gosh, I thought it was shorter than it was. A lot shorter,” Craze said of the way she initially misplayed the ball that seemed destined to hit the fence in center field.
“In the back of my head I was like, ‘Ugh, no, go back, go back!’ I honestly didn’t think I was going to catch it. I got it at the last second and I thought I was going to hit the fence.”
Craze stretched out and snagged the ball as it was falling to the turf, then rolled onto the grass before lifting her glove hand to show she’d made the play.
The play set the tone for much of the game’s remainder. Rager, who struck out five and did not walk a batter, threw a one-hitter in clinching the title. Only Wayne (20-8) leadoff hitter Jacey Parsons reached base, leading off the top of the fourth with a double to left field.
Rager immediately regained her focus and struck out No. 2 hitter Tara Watts before Parsons advanced to third when Hoover first baseman Ashleigh Tignor retired Kasey Endicott on a ground ball. The Huskies (29-6) got out of the inning when Maynard flied out to left.
“It truly was one of the best pitching performances I’ve had all season,” Rager said. “Not only that, the defense behind me was making every play. They were solid, and we’ve been practicing really hard for this, so I think we deserve it.
“I was expecting a really good hitting game because they’re a really good hitting team. Our defense held up the entire game, and I’m really proud of them,” Rager said.
Rager said she couldn’t tell whether Craze came up with the ball in the second inning, but that it added another boost of energy to the team early in the game.
“I was so excited. I had no idea where the ball was and then she came up with it,” Rager said.
It was of further interest that Craze made the play she made when contrasted with what transpired in the bottom of the first inning. Rager led off with a single to center field, where second team All-State Wayne outfielder Emily Fry mishandled the ball, committing an error that allowed Rager to advance to second. One batter later, Hoover junior Katie Angle singled to center, scoring Rager. Fry again bobbled the ball, but recovered in time to throw Angle out at second on the play.
Hoover was aggressive at the plate throughout the game, trying to put pressure on the Wayne defense as frequently as possible, Huskies coach Missy Smith said.
“Jessie Rowe’s a good pitcher, and if you let her get ahead of you she can dominate you,” Smith said of Wayne’s All-State pitcher. “We talked about that, too. We said, ‘If she gives you a good pitch early in the at-bat, go get it and don’t let her get ahead of you.”
It didn’t work often, but it worked enough times to give Rager a lead, and that was all she needed.
“We knew Allison Rager was going to be tough,” Wayne coach Tish Smith said. “We knew it was going to be a battle with that. We just tried to get the ball in play and get in her head a little bit, but it’s tough.”
Hoover, who will play Petersburg in the first round of next week’s state tournament in Vienna, left its typically quotable coach nearly speechless with the error-free performance.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Missy Smith said. “I’m so proud of them.”
Angle and McKenzie Edmonds each had two-hit days for the Huskies, and finished the day 2 for 3 at the plate.
Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at email@example.com or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT.