By Louis Wyatt
WEST LAFAYETTE — As a school of under 1,000 students, Leo was unquestionably the underdog in Saturday’s 4A state softball championship. And though they made it all the way to a Big Ten field, they couldn’t overcome one of the biggest schools in the state.
At the end of the night, a defensive error and solid pitching was all Center Grove (28-3) needed to clinch its seventh title — the most in state history. Center Grove took a 1-0 lead in the first inning at Purdue’s Bittinger Stadium after the Lions’ Haley Hines dropped a fly ball, and the Trojans never looked back.
“If you don’t score any runs, you’re not going to win a game, so that early mistake cost us a run, but we’ve got to be able to put some hits together and three hits just didn’t do it for us today,” Leo Head Coach Ben Shappell said. “These girls have worked really hard this year. They’ve been blessed with a lot of talent and that hard work that they’ve put in got us this far, but we just couldn’t get it done today.”
The Lions did manage to get two runners on base in the bottom of the first — both reaching on errors — but the teams’ pitchers both stymied their opponents’ efforts through the remainder of the game.
Center Grove pitcher Abby Herbst, a Wisconsin commit, was a showstopper Saturday, striking out 12 Leo batters. She allowed just three singles and didn’t walk a single batter, while only two Leo runners advanced past first.
“She’s got a great drop ball,” Shappell said. “It was breaking down and away from our batters on the right side and we just couldn’t get a read on it.”
In the circle for Leo, Michigan State commit Ashley Miller, a junior, allowed just three hits on the night, and only one Trojan runner made it to third through the latter six innings.
Leo’s Kiley Patterson had a game-high two hits, and Miller had a single late in the game.
Saturday’s state championship was the second close call for the Lions in this year’s postseason. The team came out on the winning end of a 2-1 bout against Penn in the semi-state semifinals, while the remainder of their games were blowout wins.
“When we got moved up to 4A, there were a lot of people that didn’t think we could compete in 4A, and we got to that hurdle of semi-state for the third time, and to get over that hurdle and to make it to this game is a lot of credit to the seniors and just a full team effort,” Shappell said. “The community support has been great too. I thought our fans were a ton louder than theirs so it’s great to see that much support for these girls.”
In addition to a state runner-up trophy, the Lions returned home with a $1,000 check for the school after senior Ellenor Schelm was named this year’s mental attitude award winner.
“I just want to thank every single one of you guys for making these past four years amazing, and you’re all going to do great things,” Schelm told her teammates after Saturday’s game.
The Lions finished their season with a 25-2 record and a No. 7 ranking in the final 4A coaches poll. The team will graduate four seniors in Hines, Schelm, Mackenzie Rust and Madison Dekonick.
“These girls should have a lot of confidence going in next year,” Shappell said. “Obviously we’re going to miss those four seniors a ton. All four of them contributed a lot this year, whether that was on the field, on the pitching mound or just in the dugout. All four of them did what we asked them to do, never complained, never had any problems, so it’s great to have four seniors like that. Hopefully these girls learn from that and learn from what these seniors put forward as a legacy to follow.”