By Pete Temple, Express Sports Editor
“We get it done.”
That is how junior pitcher Erin Hosch characterized her team, after a remarkable pair of victories over Edgewood-Colesburg gave the Monticello softball team its second consecutive Tri-Rivers Conference championship.
Looking back, Hosch’s remark may seem an understatement, given the storybook way in which the Panthers stole a couple of walkoff victories over the Vikings, who came into the June 27 doubleheader with a 16-0 conference record but left at 16-2.
The Panthers (17-1, 34-5) needed to win both ends of the home doubleheader, and picked this night for two of their most dramatic endings of the season, 4-3 in eight innings on an RBI single by Taylor Aitchison, and 6-3 on Sonya McCormick’s three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“They are just handling pressure situations phenomenally,” Monticello coach Tiffany Kruse said. “Our motto all season has been ‘whatever it takes.’ Anybody on the entire team, on any day, can get it done.”
Monticello’s title hopes looked to be in jeopardy in the first game. Ed-Co took a 3-0 lead in the third inning, with Salina Basten’s two-run double causing most of the damage.
The Vikings left runners on second and third in that inning, and left two more on in the fourth. Those would prove to be vital missed opportunities.
The 3-0 margin held up until the sixth, when a single by Allison Kraus and a double by Paxtyn Keleher got the Panthers on the scoreboard.
Then, trailing 3-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh, the Panthers mounted another in their series of dramatic comebacks.
After two out, Taylor Aitchison drew a walk. Jordan Aitchison singled to center, and a walk to Brooke Stahlberg loaded the bases.
Lael Lubben then stepped up and delivered a single to center, scoring both Aitchison sisters and tying the game. After the game, Lubben gave credit to the late Bill Aitchison, grandfather to her and the Aitchisons.
“I thought, Grandpa’s going to help me up there,” Lubben said. “He’s going to get us all in.”
Ed-Co, once a strike away from the conference title, found itself playing a 3-3 game in the eighth inning. The Vikings didn’t score in the top of the eighth, but the Panthers did in their half.
Keleher led off with a walk, and was sacrificed to second by Hosch. Following a second out, Kori Bohlken walked, and Taylor Aitchison lined a single to center that scored Keleher with the winning run.
“We play with a lot of heart,” Lubben said.
The dramatics were only half-over. The teams were now tied for the conference lead, and had the second half of the doubleheader to play.
Ed-Co showed poise in fighting off two Panther leads in the second game, trailing 2-0 and 3-2 before tying the score 3-3 with one inning to play.
After the Vikings failed to score on relief pitcher Hannah Thompson in the top of the seventh, the Panthers came up with a chance to wrap up the title.
As they have all season, they came through. Lubben singled, and was sacrificed to second by Allison Kraus. Keleher followed with a single, and a fielder’s choice left runners on first and second with two out.
McCormick, an eighth-grader eligibility-wise, launched a fly ball that seemed to keep carrying, just beyond the reach of left fielder Gen Meisner. The ball nicked off the top of the red protective railing as it went over the fence, giving the Panthers a 6-3 victory and the Tri-Rivers crown, and setting off a wild celebration.
“It was just right there,” McCormick said of the pitch. “Once I hit it, I had that feeling. I knew it was gone.
“But it was a team effort. We all worked so hard.”
Kruse said McCormick has taken well to her role on the team.
“The player she has grown into so far this year, and the confidence she has, is just incredible,” Kruse said.
Monticello might have wound up sharing the conference title, if not for two key comebacks in the second game of a doubleheader played two nights earlier at Cascade.
The Panthers scored throughout the first game, winning 8-2. Jordan Aitchison went 3-for-4 with a double at the plate, and McCormick was 2-for-2 with three runs scored. Hosch pitched for the win.
The second game, a 12-9 win for Monticello, was different. Cascade led virtually throughout, enjoying leads of 3-0 after one inning and 6-2 after two. The Panthers rallied to tie the game in the sixth, with back-to-back doubles by McCormick and Bohlken providing the tying runs, but the Cougars scored three times in the bottom half to take a 9-6 lead.
That was when the Panthers took advantage of two Cascade errors, and a two-run single by Keleher, to score six times in the top of the seventh. Thompson then pitched a scoreless bottom half to preserve the win.
“They have that never-say-die attitude,” coach Kruse said. “They were able to come back twice.”
McCormick went 3-for-4 with two doubles and three RBIs in that game, while Bohlken was 2-for-4 with two doubles and two RBIs.
As if the big finishes against Ed-Co weren’t enough, the Panthers added another one on the way to a runner-up finish at the Northeast Tournament Saturday, June 30 in Goose Lake.
Monticello opened the tournament with another last-inning, walkoff victory, edging Bellevue Marquette 8-7. The Panthers led 4-0 after two innings, trailed 5-4 in the third, led 7-6 after a two-run sixth, and the teams were tied 7-7 going into the bottom of the seventh.
Then, an RBI single by Bohlken brought home Keleher with the winning run. Keleher batted 3-for-4, while Stahlberg, McCormick and Bohlken had two hits apiece. Hosch pitched for her 25th win of the season. Jordan Aitchison had a three-run homer in the second inning.
The Panthers had an easier time in the semifinal round, beating North Cedar 10-0 in five innings. Thompson pitched a four-hit shutout in that one, striking out four. Taylor Aitchison had a two-run double in the team’s six-run fourth inning.
That put Monticello into the championship game, which Northeast won 6-3. The Rebels erased the Panthers’ 3-1 lead with four runs in the fifth, and this time, Monticello was unable to rally. Kennedy Kraus, Allison Kraus and Lubben had two hits apiece for the Panthers.
“It was just a good softball battle,” Kruse said.
Jordan Aitchison, Keleher and Lubben were named to the all-tournament team for Monticello.
West Delaware cancelled
Monticello’s game at West Delaware June 29 was called off because of rain, and will not be rescheduled.
The Panthers were scheduled to begin Class 3A, Region 4 play with a quarterfinal game at home Tuesday, July 3 against Valley/Postville (9-24). The winner will face either Cascade (21-15) or Dyersville Beckman (13-26) in the semifinal round Friday, July 6, also in Monticello. The regional finals will be July 9 at a site to be determined.
All games start at 7 p.m.
PHOTO: The Tri-Rivers Conference champion Monticello Panthers pose after their title-clinching victory. (Photo by Pete Temple)