CLAYTON — Russia, which has enjoyed a No. 1 ranking in the Division IV state coaches association poll most of the season, hasn’t had to play through many adverse situations.
Howard East Knox gave the Raiders their first challenge in a while in a regional semifinal on Tuesday at Northmont High School. But Russia stayed cool in tight situations, didn’t let fielding errors or other miscues snowball and came up with enough hits to earn a 7-5 victory.
The Raiders (27-1) rallied from a 5-4 deficit and scored three runs in the top of the seventh to earn the win, which advances them to their first regional final appearance in program history.
“Honestly, this year we haven’t been challenged a lot in those final innings with that kind of adversity,” Russia coach Michelle Muhlenkamp said. “So I told the girls, ‘let’s think back to last year in tournament, specifically where we had to come back a lot.’ In our first three games we were down and had to come back.
“So I said to think back on that and believe that we can do it right now because this is the challenge we want. We’re competitors right here in this circle, let’s go get them right now.”
Russia did that in the seventh.
East Knox (13-10) scored three runs on three hits, two errors and one walk in the bottom of the sixth to take a 5-4 lead heading into the seventh.
The Raiders quickly got to work.
Cece Borchers hit a bunt to third base and beat the throw for a single, then Jaela Shappie put down a bunt and safely reached after first baseman Kayla Finch dropped the throw.
Borchers then scored when Reese Goubeaux was at the plate. A pickoff attempt at third base went awry, and Borchers easily scored to tie it 5-5.
Goubeaux then hit into a fielder’s choice, which resulted in Shappie easily being thrown out trying to score.
But Riley Hammonds then hit a line-drive single to left field, then Makena Hoying hit a line-drive single to center to load the bases.
Kelby Doseck hit into infield pop out for the second out, but Simone Puthoff then hit a 2-RBI single with a a deep hit to center field to give Russia a 7-5 lead.
“I never really doubted it, because they never doubted it,” Muhlenkamp said. “It was awesome.”
Gracie Sheasby hit a single to get the Bulldogs started in the bottom half of the seventh, but the next three batters hit pop outs to end it, the last of which came when third baseman Ava Daniel caught a pop fly in foul territory.
Hoying pitched a complete game. She gave up two earned runs on 10 hits and four walks while striking out four batters.
That’s far more baserunners than the squad is used to seeing while playing defense. Things could have gotten worse at several points, but Russia never let mistakes compound.
Hoying walked three batters in the first inning and gave up one hit. She walked in a run to give East Knox a 1-0 lead but was able to coax a ground out to end the inning with the bases loaded.
The Bulldogs started the fourth with a single, but Doseck fielded a bunt for an out, then threw to second for a double play.
The Raiders turned another double play in the fifth. After Natalie Smith hit a one-out single, Shanda Melick hit a line drive right back to Hoying, who then threw to first for a double play.
East Knox, which was making its first regional appearance, committed four errors while Russia committed two.
“The double plays were big, and I just think that keep the momentum coming our way,” Muhlenkamp said. “Every time we kept coming back in the circle, I said ‘take that momentum and go with it with the bats.’ I think the good defense translated into believing in ourselves at the plate, too.”
Russia often had to believe in itself with two outs — six of the team’s seven runs came with two outs.
Hoying hit a two-out home run on a line-drive to center field in the third to give Russia a 2-1 lead. She finished the day 3 for 4 at the plate.
After the Bulldogs scored one run on three hits in the bottom of the third to tie it 2-2, the Raiders were able to drive across runs with two outs in the fifth.
After the first two batters hit pop outs to start the inning, Goubeaux hit a ground ball and reached on an error, then Hammonds hit an RBI double to left field to score Goubeaux. Hammonds, who played through illness, finished the day 2 for 4.
“This game puts a lot of pressure on, and with your town sitting behind you and a lot of people here supporting you, it’s hard to say you expect (timely hits), but I think these girls believe in taking a deep breath, stepping in there and keep having fun,” Muhlenkamp said.
“There’s going to be pressure. We talked about that today. There’s going to be butterflies. You can feel them, they can be there, but then turn it into something competitive. Want that next pitch, want that next out.”
East Knox threw back to second, but the ball went into the outfield, and Hammonds was able to score on the error to give Russia a 4-2 lead.
The Bulldogs battled back in the sixth. Sheasby hit a ground ball and reached on an error by Puthoff at shortstop. After a pop out, Baylee Comer hit a single to center field and Kayla Finch hit a single to left to load the bases.
Anjel Montgomery then hit a ground ball to Hoying and safely reached first after Hoying bobbled the ball. Sheasby scored on the play to cut the gap to 4-3.
Maddy Cotsamire then hit a 2-RBI single to right field to give East Knox a 5-4 lead.
It didn’t last, as the Raiders came up big in the seventh.
Cotsamire pitched a complete game. She allowed three earned runs on 10 hits and one walk while striking out five batters.
Russia, which is making its second regional appearance after qualifying for the first time last year, advances to face Bradford (22-5) in a regional final. The Railroaders beat Mechanicsburg 13-3 in the first semifinal on Tuesday at Northmont.
Bradford is the defending D-IV state champion. Despite losing ace pitcher Skipp Miller to graduation, the Railroaders have put together another strong campaign. They’ve won 16 consecutive games, and their last two postseason wins have come by run-rule margins.
“They came out hitting the ball today, it sounds like,” Muhlenkamp said. “… From what we know about them, they can hit the ball. They’re going to put the ball in play. We’re going to have to play defense and show up. We’re going to celebrate this tonight and get back to work tomorrow.”
The game is scheduled to start at 5 p.m. on Friday, but it could be postponed by bad weather.
The National Weather Service is currently calling for a high chance of rain on Friday. Rain is also likely on Wednesday and Thursday.