BENTON — In a game that took nearly three and a half hours to complete, the Harmony Grove Lady Cardinals (26-5) emerged as the victor, defeating 3A’s top-ranked team and defending state champions Rose Bud 4-2 in nine innings at Benton’s Lady Panthers Park.
The win was Harmony Grove’s fifth state championship overall and first since 2013 when the Lady Cardinals defeat Lavaca 2-1.
The title is also the fifth for Head Coach Sammi Massey, who was unable to contain her emotion following the dogfight against the Lady Ramblers (31-2).
“Nobody believed we could do that,” Massey said after the game. “I am so stinking proud of those kids and how hard they fought all through the game. They never quit when it would have been easy at times to give up.”
The Lady Cardinals had fallen twice to Rose Bud this year, both coming in the finals of the 5-3A District Tournament and the Region 2 Regional Tournament. Until Saturday’s contest, Rose Bud had not allowed a run since Harmony Grove scored two in the district tournament and had not allowed a run in three games of the state tournament.
The win by Harmony Grove also snaps a hefty 27-game winning streak for the Lady Ramblers, who hadn’t lost since slipping against Pottsville 6-3 on March 10.
Harmony Grove grabbed a quick 1-0 lead in the top of the first when senior Baylee Rowton took pitcher Jenna Hipp deep over the left-field wall for a solo home run.
Senior and the game’s most valuable player Grace Bryant pitched around a leadoff walk to keep the game at 1-0 after one.
Harmony Grove would go in order in the second, followed by Bryant getting out of a two-on, none-out jam in the bottom of the frame.
Rose Bud, though, would strike in the bottom of the third with a sacrifice fly RBI from Hope Hartle to make it 1-1 after three.
While the Lady Cardinals bats continued to be shut down, Bryant kept her team motivated with outstanding pitching, including escaping a bases-loaded jam in the fourth to leave the score knotted at 1-1.
In the fifth, Bryant found herself in a rough spot once again, having to pitch around back-to-back walks to start the inning. She would be gifted a sacrifice bunt before forcing back-to-back fielder’s choice grounders to end the threat and the inning.
Harmony Grove seemed to have something brewing in the top of the sixth after a leadoff double from senior Brooke Roush, but would fail to score as Roush was stranded at second.
For Rose Bud, the sixth looked promising as well, but a crucial base-running miscue would dash the threat as the Lady Cardinals turned a double play on a fly out and assist at the dish from senior Rachel Kesterson.
Pinch runner Carlee Stair would be thrown out at the plate after what looked like total confusion on her part. The score would remain 1-1.
“I guess she thought it was third out. I don’t know,” Massey said.
Despite taking all of the momentum, a base-running mistake on Harmony Grove’s part would result in the same outcome as the top of the seventh inning ended with a double play when freshman Dalli Chivers was caught in a rundown before being tagged out at second base.
Bryant, however, would get two strikeouts and a pop out in the bottom of the seventh to force extra innings.
Beginning with a runner on second due to the international tiebreaker rule, Harmony Grove would use an Abbi Davis single and an RBI sacrifice fly from Rowton to take its second lead of the day, 2-1.
Rose Bud would tie things in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI ground out, but would leave two on as Bryant struck out her eighth hitter on the day.
Again, starting with a runner on second, Harmony Grove would immediately have two on with none out as senior Leighton Withers was intentionally passed. A sacrifice bunt would put runners at second and third with one out. Thanks to an RBI sacrifice fly from Kesterson, Bryant would score, making it 3-2.
Junior Kylie Moore would add a much-needed insurance run with an RBI single the next at-bat to put Harmony Grove on top 4-2.
Having pitched out of trouble most of the day, Bryant, again, would have to wiggle her way out of an inning, throwing around a one-out walk and single before forcing a pop out and game-ending ground out, sending Harmony Grove home with the title.
“I felt really good,” Bryant said. “I had pitched two games back-to-back before facing them the last two times so this time I was fresh.”
Bryant would end her MVP performance with a complete game, allowing two runs on six hits while striking out eight and walking eight (three intentional), all while throwing 172 pitches.
“I am so proud of Grace for a great outstanding pitching job today,” Massey said. “We made plays when we had to. Everybody had their role and I told them that if they did that we had a good chance of winning and they did that.”
Massey elected to intentionally pass Rose Bud’s leadoff hitter Joley Mitchell three times after pitching around her in the first inning, which led to the first of four walks to the junior. Mitchell would collect one hit in the game and scored a run.
“She is not going to beat me,” Massey said. “That was my goal today and everybody thinks I am crazy, but she was not going to beat me. Somebody else was going to have to do it.”
Coming in, Mitchell was hitting .655 with 24 home runs, 81 runs scored and 71 RBIs to go along with 31 stolen bases.
Harmony Grove would win the hitting battle as well, with seven different hitters collecting knocks.
Rowton would finish with two RBIs and a run scored. Withers would also collect a hit and was walked twice in the contest.
With the win, nine seniors end their high school playing careers, including Rowton, Roush, Withers, Davis, Kesterson, Bryant, Kinsey Bryant, Caitlyn Crain and Tori Allen.
“I am just super excited for this group of kids,” Massey said. “They have worked so hard the past four years and I am so happy for this group of seniors. I am senior heavy and they showed senior leadership so much today.”