- 1 of 8 Photos | View More Photos
The Hillsdale Falcons had stormed through the opening rounds of the Division IV Copley District Tournament, beating Rittman and Willoughby Cornerstone Christian by a combined 29-0 margin.
Tuesday in the Copley District championship game, they met their toughest match yet in the young Mogadore Wildcats.
Second-seeded Mogadore refused to give in against top-seeded Hillsdale, finally falling 4-0 at Copley High School in a rematch of last year's district championship game.
It was without a doubt the Falcons' toughest challenge yet, even as they captured their second straight district title in their third consecutive district championship game appearance.
"They played hard and that's what we've been looking for is someone to keep playing us hard," Hillsdale coach Hannah Fulk said. "They didn't give up. They fought the entire game and made us fight for that win. They're a good team."
That's a credit to a Wildcats team that has made significant strides throughout the season en route to capturing district runner-up honors for the second straight year. Though Mogadore finished in the same, exact place last season, falling 3-0 to Hillsdale in the 2016 Copley District title game, just getting there was big for a freshman-filled Wildcats team that got out to a slow start in 2017. After winning two of three to begin the season, Mogadore dropped its next four, allowing 12-plus runs in three of those losses. Tuesday, the Wildcats (18-8) made clear how far they've come, holding a powerful Falcons offense to four runs.
"It was hard at first to gel," Mogadore senior shortstop Lexie Pierce said. "We gelled somehow. We started stringing hits. We finally got a set lineup. Finally, we found what worked for us."
During that long-ago, early April cold snap, Amanda Kot was part of a 13-12 loss to Windham in which Mogadore coach Tom Pollock felt his freshman hurler got a little frustrated on the mound. Kot showed how much tougher she has gotten Tuesday weathering storm after storm over four gutsy innings of work. Facing a Falcons team that had scored 29 runs over its first two postseason games, Kot limited Hillsdale to four runs, three earned, over four frames. Every time the game threatened to unravel, Kot prevailed.
"She definitely held it together today," Pierce said. "It's scary as a freshman. I was a freshman who started, too. You got to earn your spot. She definitely earned her spot. It is frightening, but it's mentality, and her mentality was there today."
In the second, after Olivia Betson doubled home the game's first run, Kot got out of the inning with a groundout and a flyout. In the third, the Falcons pieced together four straight singles, but Kot escaped having yielded just two runs. In the fourth, after a leadoff error in the outfield, Kot coerced a groundout, then froze the Hillsdale nine hitter with a low change-up. Even after giving up her fourth run on a triple, Kot came back to get another groundout.
"This was a good, strong year for her," Pollock said. "She matured and stepped up to the plate. She did a great job against a good team that has been killing the ball."
Kot also accounted for one of Mogadore's two hits Tuesday, sending a hard grounder through the middle in the seventh. She was also one of two Mogadore hitters not to strike out against hard-throwing Sydney Long, who struck out 12 over a complete-game, two-hit shutout. The other hit came courtesy of Colleen Coughlin, another freshman, who broke Long's no-hitter with a chopper over the third baseman. Pierce said the late hits didn't surprise her -- she said Mogadore has always been a late-inning team.
"From travel ball experience, we know that the game is more mentality," freshman catcher and centerfielder Paige Halliwill said. "You have to know how to do it mentally. You still have to have a talent and an ability, but you have to just go up there thinking you're going to get the hit."
Not to be outdone by her freshman cohorts, Halliwill played pitch-perfect defense behind the plate, then snagged three flies in centerfield in the fifth. The first involved a run toward the infield, as she snared Long's short flare. The second involved a dash to the left-center gap, as Halliwill got a fine jump on Betson's threatening drive. The third was her most impressive, as she ran down Madison Heller's drive to the right-center gap, making a successful stab with her glove right as she was about to run into her teammate in right field.
"I want to give 110 (percent) every play," Halliwill said. "I want to make the big play because it feels good to. I'm always just willing to sacrifice my body for my team. I want to make the big plays."
Still, for all of Mogadore's young talent, the Wildcats struggled to figure out Long, who got ahead with fastballs on the corners and polished batters off with a devastating rise ball.
"She's pretty dominant," Pierce said. "She's very good. She hits her spots. It was a challenge for us because we haven't seen anybody like her all year."
Long struck out four straight batters to end the second and start the third -- then had another streak of four straight strikeouts to finish the fifth and get through the sixth.
"If she hits her spots, it's hard for hitters to catch up to her and she makes the ball dance," Fulk said. "That's her bread and butter."
Some pitchers whiff batters at the expense of their pitch count, but Long was plenty efficient, never throwing more than 19 pitches in an inning, including a 10-pitch first and a seven-pitch fourth.
"She's the best we've seen and that hurts us and I'm not belly-aching," Pollock said. "Everybody (gets) the same thing. The biggest game of the year is against the best pitcher you see. We've faced some probably that threw as hard, but not the movement she has and not the intelligence she has."
Paired with a pesky order, Long was enough for Hillsdale. The top four hitters in the Falcons' order all recorded base knocks, including a 3-for-3 day from cleanup hitter Keirah Smetzer.
In Hillsdale's two-run third, Kaylee Cline blooped a base hit just in front of the diving centerfielder to load the bases, and Smetzer found green by a similarly narrow margin, sending a soft flare just past the diving second baseman to give the Falcons a 2-0 lead. Long's deep fly to right, her second sacrifice of the game, made the score 3-0. After Heller reached on an error to start the fourth, Adrianna Rogers plated her with a blast to deep right.
"Our order is one through 10, even 11," Fulk said. "We don't have that one hitter that you can go a little bit easy or something like that."
Katie Oliver, one of Mogadore's few seniors this year, came in to pitch two scoreless innings out of the bullpen, helped by Halliwill's handiwork in center. Fellow senior Pierce made three putouts.