After she had driven in the decisive run in the bottom of the 15th inning to lift her team to a grueling 6-5 home win over Riverheads on Tuesday in the Region B softball quarterfinals, Manassas Park junior catcher Sam Martell claimed the Cougars could have played much longer if that had been required to knock off the Gladiators.
"Oh, we could have gone about 24 innings," Martell said with a laugh. "It's just a matter of time."
"Speak for yourself," shot back grinning freshman pitcher Courtney Steele, whose sore arm only grew wearier with her 188-pitch, 18-strikeout effort.
Although the marathon game did evoke please-get-this-over-with sentiments from both fans and players, the victory was an important milestone for the Cougars, and not just because it put them one game from a Virginia A tournament bid.
Going into Tuesday, Manassas Park had qualified for regionals eight times under 11th-year coach Melissa Pitts, and seven times it had lost in the region quarterfinals, the exception being 2000, when the Cougars won the state crown.
So slipping past the first round, particularly after needing to rally for three runs to tie the game in the bottom of the 11th, made it worth waiting 15 innings. The Cougars play at Goochland at 6 tonight in a region semifinal.
"This is at least a step further than it's been in a long time," said Pitts, whose team lost to Riverheads in 2002 in its most recent region appearance before Tuesday. "Now we just need to keep going."
Sophomore Ashleigh Robinson found herself not one step but several steps farther than she wanted to be in the bottom of the 15th, after she had singled to open the inning and taken third on a Steele hit. With Martell at the plate, Pitts signaled for a suicide squeeze. Robinson caught the sign, but Martell did not and swung away at the 0-1 pitch with Robinson breaking for home. Martell hit a fly ball with enough air under it that Robinson had time to retreat to third, tag up and score.
"That's what was running through my mind -- that I had to get [home]," said Robinson, who reached base in her final five at-bats, with four hits and a walk. "And then I had to get back really quick. I figured I could [score], because she hit it really deep."
Riverheads (16-6), which scored two runs in the third thanks to a walk and error and series of wild pitches, did not manage a hit off Steele until the ninth inning, when junior Lindsey Lamond stroked a single to right field with freshman courtesy runner Ashley Kyle on second. Kyle tried to score on the play but was erased on a 9-3-2 putout.
The Gladiators scored three runs in the 11th. Senior Kristi Sorrells walked to open the inning and took third when Steele threw wide of first on senior Amanda Chambers's bunt. Sorrells scored on a wild pitch, and Chambers and sophomore Kristin Bosserman, who was hit by a pitch, scored on a two-out single by freshman Annie Sandridge, the second and final hit off Steele.
Manassas Park (11-7), which needed to score two runs in the bottom of the seventh to edge Madison County in the Bull Run District championship, tied Riverheads with three runs in the bottom of the 11th. Robinson worked a full-count walk, and one out later, Martell walked. Senior Aimee DePugh singled up the middle to drive in a run, and another run scored on a groundout by sophomore Mandy Shifflett. Sophomore Shavan Carl tied the game with an RBI single.
From that point, Steele retired 12 of the last 14 Gladiators, the exceptions being a hit batter and a walk.
"When they got her the three runs, I thought she got reenergized," said Gladiators Coach Joe O'Donnell, whose team played five consecutive extra-inning games to end its season. "It looked like to me from the seventh, eighth on until we got the three runs that she didn't quite have the fastball that she had. And then when they got the three runs that got them back in the game, she looked like she turned it up a notch and showed what kind of competitor she is."
Steele received encouragement in the late innings from her sister, Jennifer, who pitches at Longwood University. It was the elder Steele, a two-time All-Extra Player of the Year, who led the Cougars to the state title in 2000. Her main advice was for Courtney to use her legs more on her delivery. Probably not a bad suggestion considering how sore her arm was.
"She was hurting before we ever started the game," Pitts said. "When she came out here to throw today, [her arm] hurt her tremendously. She was in tears. For her to come out and throw 15 innings after that is pretty great."