CHARLEVOIX The Gladstone softball team of manager Gerry Smith made it an even 10 in a row here Saturday.
The Braves parlayed outstanding pitching performances from junior Alison Austin and sophomore Christine Sharon and timely hitting up and down the lineup into their 10th consecutive Division III regional championship. They defeated Tawas Area 7-0 in the semifinals and Traverse City St. Francis 6-2 in the championship.
"They all feel great but every team is a little different and every year is unique," a smiling Smith said just before the traditional presentation of the regional medals and trophy. "We got some key hits at the right time and our pitching was effective. When you have those two things going for you, you win most of the time."
Photo courtesy of Mike Dunn
Alex Saunders of Gladstone knocks the ball away from the Tawas Area catcher to score in the sixth inning of the Division 3 semifinal Saturday in Charlevoix.
Austin and Sharon both pitched masterfully under the hot sun for the Braves.
Austin, mixing her deliveries with lethal efficiency, twirled a three-hitter in the opener against Tawas with three strikeouts and gave the Braves their sixth straight shutout win. The sizzling Sharon fired a four-hitter against St. Francis with nine K's and two walks. The two runs scored against her in the sixth by the Gladiators were unearned.
"Al and Christine have stepped up to the challenge this year," Smith said. "We lost Mackenzie (Shepeck) to graduation and needed both of those girls to pick up the baton and they have. You could see that today."
Austin and Sharon were both so effective, in fact, that Smith said he had "no idea" who he would start Tuesday in the quarterfinals against Reed City. Not a bad problem for the veteran manager to have. Judging from Saturday's showing, Smith can't go wrong either way when the Braves take on the Coyotes at noon at Traverse City West High School.
Smith noted the defense behind the pitchers was outstanding in both contests.
"Both teams put the ball in play and our defense did the job," he said. "Defense helps pitching. Our pitchers can relax and be confident because they know the girls behind them will make the plays."
One big defensive play in the title game came in the fourth inning with one out and a runner on when St. Francis third baseman Kelsey Knudsen attempted to bunt and popped the ball into the air. Gladstone catcher Jordan Kowalski tossed off her mask in a flash and ran under the ball to make the diving catch, then alertly fired to first baseman Nicole Sharon for the double play.
At the plate, the Braves' big boppers were bopping in both games.
Senior rightfielder Katie Becker, who has been hotter than a heaping bowl of Texas chili with the bat in her hands all season long, punished enemy pitching from start to finish. The lefty, who has an average above .500 and is a Miss Softball candidate for her position, went a torrid 7-for-9 in the two games with three doubles, three RBIs, four runs scored and three stolen bases.
"I was just trying to stay focused for every pitch," Becker said. "This morning I was actually feeling a little iffy but then after we got here I could feel the intensity in the dugout and I knew we were ready. This is crunch time and we all knew we had to come through."
Becker said getting the early lead in both games was a big key.
"It was very important, especially against Tawas because they beat us before (in the regular season)," she said. "Their pitcher throws hard and I think it got to their head when we got some hits and had the lead right away. And it was a boost to our confidence, too."
Becker said another thing that helped was facing Shepeck in batting practice prior to the tournament. Shepeck recently completed her freshman season as a pitcher for Western Michigan University.
"Mackenzie came to our practices and we had the chance to hit off her," she said. "That definitely helped get us ready for Tawas."
In the semifinal win, the third in three years for the Braves over Tawas in the regional tournament, senior shortstop Jordan Schwartz and senior third baseman Alex Saunders both stroked a double and scored a run. Whitney Wells and Nicole Sharon each had RBI singles and Becker went 4-for-5 with two doubles, an RBI and three runs scored.
In the title game with St. Francis, Saunders helped ignite a four-run second inning with a drive to left that clanged off the fence for a lead-off double. Becker busted a two-run double to right and Schwartz smacked a two-run single in the same inning. Wells scored twice while centerfielder Courtney Nevala cracked two hits with a run scored and an RBI and Nicole Sharon had an RBI single.
The sixth-ranked Braves take a 25-5-1 record into the quarterfinals. Reed City (29-9) prevailed in its regional tournament at Evart, edging Morley-Stanwood 6-5 in the finals.