After six and two-thirds innings – with just one out to go in the game – everything was looking great for the Freedom softball team against Antioch on April 15. The Falcons were leading 1-0. And freshman Madison Williams – the latest in a long line of great Williams pitchers – was doing a masterful job on the mound, striking out eight, walking none and giving up just three hits.
Were this a major league game, many fans would have already headed for the exits to beat the traffic out of the parking lot. But Freedom wasn’t playing Liberty or Pittsburg or Deer Valley, whom they have beaten by the collective score of 38-4 in their first games against each. Antioch is made of sterner stuff, having come into the game undefeated in league play and having also beaten Liberty, Pittsburg and Deer Valley (by a collective 14-0 score) – and adding in a 2-0 win over Heritage, which had been previously undefeated in league play.
So it was perhaps too much for Falcons fans to ask that Antioch go quietly in the seventh and final inning. Sure enough, Williams issued her first walk of the game. Julia Surges then scored on Desiree Coston’s double to deep centerfield. And just like that, the game was tied 1-1 and headed to extra innings. With two great teams like Freedom and Antioch, the potential was there for the game to go deep into the teens in the inning count.
But Freedom would have none of that. Malena Padilla led off the top of the eighth with a single up the middle. Normally, Manager Jeff Jonas would have signaled the next batter to bunt the runner over into scoring position on second. But the next batter was Jackie Zepeda, the hottest batter on the team with a .477 average, two home runs and 15 runs batted in. A Zepeda single in the third knocked in Freedom’s first run after Padilla had doubled. So, of course, Jonas let Zepeda swing away, and, of course, Zepeda doubled to right-center, scoring Padilla for the 2-1 lead.
Williams returned to the mound in the bottom of the eighth – and some might have been wondering what kind of stuff the freshman pitcher is made of. Would she succumb to rookie jitters after having blown the lead with one out to go in the game? Or would she follow in her older sisters’ enormous footsteps by shutting down the opposition? She actually did a little of both by striking out the first batter, giving up a single to the second batter, striking out the third batter and giving up a single to the fourth batter. With two outs and runners on first and second, it came down to a duel between Williams and Kelsey Cast. The count went to 2-2 before Williams struck her out swinging to get the win.
Jonas said that the focus in recent practices on developing poise paid off. “I thought we showed a lot of poise today,” he said. “(Antioch pitcher) Paris (Imholz) threw a great game; she’s a great pitcher. Antioch plays tough. They are very well coached. They swing the bat in clutch situations. They don’t quit. They are one of those teams you can’t ever lighten up on because they will come back and beat you. They have a lot of spirit and a lot of heart.
“I thought when they tied it in the last inning to get it into extras – I thought that was the time when we had to show that poise. It was either going to break us or we were going to come back in and do what a team with poise does. And that’s get your lead off hitter on and get her over. With that situation with Jackie, she’s so hot I didn’t even think of bunting her. I’d rather steal Malena in that situation and let Jackie hit because she’s doing such a good job of hitting right now. Malena is setting the table.
“I was really proud of the kids today. My hat’s off to Antioch because they have a lot of guts and character over there. And it’s going to be a battle every time we or anybody else plays them. Those kids are tough. (Manager) John (Luis) is doing a great job over there.
Jonas was especially pleased with Williams’ effort after having given up four runs to Deer Valley two days prior. “I really think she had been gearing up for it like this was a really big game for her,” he said. “It’s hard to say how freshmen are going to do with that. Are they going to kind of fold up or are they going to go after it? She went after it and grabbed it today. And I’m proud of her. She showed a lot of poise today, a lot of character. She’s not going to run in any marathons in the future, but she’s been working hard on her conditioning. And it showed; in the eighth she was still pretty strong. The hard work pays off.”
Luis noted that the little things can make a big difference in the outcome of a game. “It was a hard-fought battle. We just came up short,” he said. “We made a base-running mistake and a fielding miscue. The other pitcher pitched well and we battled back. But we weren’t able to get the big hit in the last inning there to give us a chance. We weren’t too successful in moving runners up today. But that’s what we’ve done in the past to get the wins. We’ll continue to work on the small ball and moving runners up and key hits.
“We’ll be all right. This is just one hitch in the road. We’ll be all right. We have good pitching and some solid defense. Everybody is 4-1. And it will be a good fight for the lead. Freedom’s a good team. Heritage is a good team. Antioch is a good team. So it should be a good triple round-robin. The winner from this is going to be a good team, no matter who wins it out.”
Freedom visits Liberty on Tuesday April 20 and hosts Heritage on Thursday April 22. Antioch is at Deer Valley on Tuesday and hosts Pittsburg on Thursday.