GLADSTONE - What began as a disaster became a dramatic victory for the South Portage Major Girls Little League All-Stars Wednesday morning. South Portage is headed back to Indianapolis for the second consecutive year, repeating as state champions with an 8-2 victory over St. Clair at Howes Family Field.
In the second inning, it looked unlikely the team from the Kalamazoo area would be doing much celebrating at all.
South Portage was down 2-0 and had committed an uncharacteristic four errors in one inning of play. Jackie Jensen scored on a passed ball from third base in the first and Hope Meyer scored on an Alexis Landschoot bunt in the second.
Keith Shelton | Daily Press
South Portage players take a victory lap around the bases with the state championship banner, after beating St. Clair 8-2 Wednesday at Howes Field in Gladstone.
The two runs were the first scored against vaunted pitcher Maddie Bell, who was perfect to that point throughout the district and state tournaments. Not only a special pitcher, Bell is also the No. 3 batter in the South Portage order and one of the team's top hitters.
So it was a dire moment indeed when Bell was hit on the shin by a ball in the bottom of the second inning. Unable to return, manager Tim Bell reluctantly inserted Lexie Hughes in relief.
"Lexie pitched Sunday against Escanaba and came into the game when we were up 5-0 and gave up a couple runs, forcing me to burn up a pitcher (Rachel Pijaszek)," said manager Bell.
"I wasn't sure where her confidence would be at today, but she came in cool as a cucumber. I can't say enough about Lexie. She didn't allow a run and I couldn't be prouder."
In fact, Hughes allowed just two hits and two walks the rest of the way, striking out three in earning the victory.
The injury to Bell may have served as a rallying cry for the South Portage girls, as it appeared to trigger a momentum shift. The bats came alive, the defense stepped up and the team had renewed focus.
In the third inning, St. Clair pitcher Maddie Mead hit two consecutive South Portage batters to walk in two runs. Reserve player Lauren Irman had the other two RBIs on a base single. As it turned out, she had the winning hit and was named the game MVP. South Portage led 4-2 after that inning and never looked back.
"Lauren is typically a reserve for us. We had the bases loaded in the third and I was going to put in another sub, I had her called up and everything. Then I had a gut feeling and put Lauren in and she hit that two-RBI single," said manager Bell.
South Portage added another run in the fourth, one in the fifth and two in the sixth.
The minor injury to Bell perhaps being a blessing in disguise, Bell said he helped get his team pumped up before the third innings.
"I talked to the kids and told them, the only team that can beat you, is you," he said referring to the four errors in the first inning. "They believed it. I think the girls stepped it up after Maddie went down. When we knew she wasn't coming back, I called a team meeting and told them 'she's not going to die, she'll be OK.'"
Mead allowed five hits over five innings for St. Clair but got into some trouble with four walks including a couple hit batters. She was relieved by Emma Distelrath.
"The first two innings were great," said St. Clair manager Dan Johnson. "Our team started out alright. We had the 2-0 lead, the momentum in our favor, then we ran into some pitching problems and allowed runners on base. Once (South Portage) got going, we couldn't catch up."
Johnson said he noticed a change in his team after Bell was injured.
"It could have rallied the troops for them, seeing their player hurt," said Johnson. "Our girls don't like seeing that kind of thing happen either, but things went flat after that. It was a great hit that hurt her, but then we went south. It happens in this game sometimes, you have your ups and downs."
South Portage is now off to Indianapolis to face the Iowa state champion Sunday. The team is in pool A along with the Wisconsin, Ohio and North-South Dakota (one team) state champions.
Manager Bell thinks the wealth of experience on his squad will help them on the national regional stage. There are 10 teams total playing for the right to go to the national finals. The top two teams from each pool will advance to the championship round.
"I have seven back that played there last year," he said. "All of these girls have been under pressure situations. The girls love it."