ANNA — It looked at the beginning of the season that Russia’s long-running reign as Shelby County Athletic League softball champions may have been coming to an end.
But the Raiders displayed in an SCAL game on Tuesday in Anna that they’re still one of the best in the conference — and maybe still the best.
Russia knocked off the Rockets 8-3 to stay on pace with Houston for the SCAL title. The victory came almost four weeks to the day the Raiders lost to Anna 9-5 in Russia, which was their first SCAL defeat in three seasons.
Russia didn’t let the early-season loss become a trend. Tuesday’s victory improved the squad to 12-6 overall and 9-1 in SCAL play.
“I knew coming here tonight that these girls were going to get the job done,” Russia coach Michelle Muhlenkamp said. “They wanted to play Anna again. That was probably the worst game we’ve played all year and was kind of our turning point. We were like, ‘Girls, this is our season, you’ve got to make it our season. You’ve got to own your positions and own this team.’ Since then, we’ve done that and have just been on a roll.”
Tuesday’s win kept Russia on pace with Houston (9-8) for the SCAL title. The Wildcats are 7-1 in league play.
The victory is the sixth in the last eight games for Russia, with the only losses in the that time coming to area powers Riverside (13-5) and Minster (20-1).
“Early on, this team had a lot of learning to do with their positions and mental toughness,” Russia coach Michelle Muhlenkamp said. “We have grown immensely in both departments. All departments, really, with hitting, fielding and mental toughness.”
Russia showed plenty of examples of mental toughness, including two occurrences when players made fielding errors but recorded outs on the next play. The last of those two occurrences came when freshman third baseman Ava Daniel tagged out a runner to end the game in the seventh after having mishandled a ground ball on the previous play.
“We came back mentally tougher tonight than the last game against Anna after making a few errors,” Muhlenkamp said. “I’m really proud of them in a lot of ways.”
An example of mental and physical toughness came when freshman pitcher Sophie Francis struck out Brielle Collier in the fourth inning after the previous batter sent a line drive into Francis’ leg.
Francis pitched a complete game and gave up 10 hits with no walks.
“Her composure is just out of this world,” Muhlenkamp said. “She goes out there and is just so calm. She doesn’t blow the ball by girls but she moves it a lot and gets the job done. She’s a big component to this team this year.”
It’s the fifth loss in the last seven games for Anna (7-8, 6-4 SCAL), which started the season with four consecutive wins.
“We just could not come up with big hits,” Anna coach Mike Place said. “We left 11 runners on. The difference was they could string their hits together and get runners across, and we couldn’t. There really wasn’t a big turning point.”
Russia freshman catcher Riley Hammonds came up with a pair of those big hits to help the Raiders earn the victory.
Russia scored two runs on two hits and a walk in the first inning but Anna battled back and tied it with two runs on one hit in the second.
The Raiders took a 3-2 lead after Kennedie Goubeaux hit an RBI single to center field in the third, then Hammonds helped put the game away.
Hammonds ripped a hard ground ball along the left-field line in the fourth inning to drive home two runs and put the Raiders ahead 5-2. She then hit an RBI double to center field with two outs in the sixth inning to increase the lead to 6-2.
“Riley’s been dreaming of playing high school softball for a long time,” Muhlenkamp said. “She’s been a manager for a long time the whole way coming up, so this is a dream come true. She’s been doing exactly what we thought she would do this year, which is playing awesome at catcher and hitting the crap out of the ball.
“I love when she’s up with two outs and has to take off her (knee pads) and go up there and hit the ball, because I know she can get it done for us.”
Shea Borchers followed right after Hammonds’ sixth-inning double with a 2-RBI double to right field to boost the lead to 8-2.
Anna’s first two batters in the seventh hit into routine outs but Taylor Spence walked, Elaina Crosson hit a single to short stop and Brandi Weber hit an RBI single to left field to narrow the gap to five runs. After Carly Edwards reached on an error, Nylah Crosson hit a shot to Daniel, who tagged out Elaina Crosson for the final out.
Elaina Crosson picked up the loss in the circle for Anna. She pitched a complete game gave up 12 hits and two walks while striking out three.
“It was a good game even though the score was what it was because our hits were about even,” Place said. “It was just the timing of the hits were big for them, and we struggled with that. It’s a good job on (Russia’s) part.”
The Raiders and Houston will play on May 11 in Russia in what could determine the SCAL title. But Russia must first beat Fairlawn on the road on Thursday and Houston must win league games with Botkins, Fort Loramie and Fairlawn over the next week to set up such a showdown.
Regardless of what happens in the next 10 days, Muhlenkamp said she’s proud of the progress the team has shown this year. She credits that to the team’s seniors, which include Goubueax, Shea Borchers, Jenna Cordonnier, Morgan Wenrick and Savannah Albers.
Cordonnier, a shortstop, was also a key varsity player on Russia’s volleyball and basketball teams, and Muhlenkamp said she’s helped lead the team.
“All of our seniors have (shown a lot of leadership),” Muhlenkamp said. “Jenna has grown a lot from the start of the year to now as a senior. She’ll speak up now and (the other seniors) will speak up now in the circle, which was hard to get them to do before. I’m really proud of the way they’re leading this team. When their energy is up, the whole team’s energy is up.”
The Rockets, which play next on Thursday at Jackson Center, are out of SCAL contention and are looking toward making a tournament run. They were voted the No. 10 seed in the Dayton Division III sectional and will start postseason play on May 6 at home against No. 11 Miami East (7-11).
“We kind of start over (with tournament),” Place said. “Miami East is a decent team but I think we’re a decent team. It’s going to be a good game, and from what I’ve heard, we’re pretty equal. That’s exciting for us to get to play that at home.”
Russia was voted the No. 6 seed in the Dayton Div. IV sectional. The Raiders will start postseason play on May 9 against No. 5 Triad (10-6).
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.