For the second straight year, seven innings weren't enough to crown a champion at Palm Harbor University’s annual Lady Canes Spring Tournament.
But whereas 2012’s final featured a 10-inning slugfest with host PHU beating East Lake, 15-14, this year’s version was the polar opposite. Fantastic pitching and equally impressive defense ruled the night.
After battling to a scoreless tie through seven innings, it was Plant High that finally caught the game’s decisive break in the top of the eighth against River Ridge.
With pinch runner Emily Rubin standing at second, Panthers second baseman Sydney Socher sent a one-out chopper toward the hole between short and third. River Ridge third baseman Melissa Moore jumped left to get a glove on the ball but couldn’t quite reel in what would have been a phenomenal play. That caused the ball to deflect back and away from a charging Kenzi Maguire at short, allowing Rubin to speed around third and slide safely into home.
Rubin was at second pinch running for first baseman McKenzee Herron, who led the frame off with a pretty piece of hitting when she sent an opposite-field double into right-center.
Plant coach Melissa Sigmon said Rubin had the green light right as she saw the game-winning play unfold. "As soon as I saw it deflect off her glove. I knew the shortstop was moving this way and wouldn’t have time to go get it, so that just kind of worked out in our favor."
"It was a freak play, but that’s part of the game," said River Ridge coach Ernie Beck. "The kid [Moore] had a great tournament, a lead-off double in the seventh inning and she did everything she could to win the game."
In addition to her aforementioned double, Moore was automatic from her third-base position. She recorded 10 assists, meaning she accounted for 41.6 percent of Plant outs.
Following the run-scoring hit from Socher – her third knock of the day – Plant then put runners at the corners with two outs, but, as was the case throughout the majority of the night, River Ridge pitcher Makenzie Goluba retired the side without any additional damage done.
Goluba and Plant starter Nikki Misner stole much of the show Saturday with their dominating performances.
Misner got the best of the duel on this night, though, tossing eight shutout innings while scattering four hits and striking out a season-high 10 batters.
"It feels really great and our defense was five-times better than it’s been all season," she said. "I’m so proud of us for coming out like this."
The senior hurler needed every bit of that effectiveness to record the final three outs and preserve a victory. River Ridge’s Moore continued her highlight-filled night by leading off the bottom of the eighth with a double to left-center. Brittany Forrise moved her to third with a sacrifice bunt, but Misner largely handled the rest herself. She got Allysa Lyons to pop up a bunt attempt for out number two and then struck out Kylie Randolph with a full-count screwball to end it.
"It was a screwball inside," she said of the final pitch. "My rise ball and my screwball were really my go-to pitches tonight. I wanted to make the batters hit it in the air so we could get pop ups and stop them from advancing."
River Ridge twice started innings with leadoff doubles and subsequent sac bunts that gave it a runner at third with only one out, but Knights batters couldn’t manage to crack Misner when it counted.
"Nikki had struggled a little bit at the beginning of the year and this weekend she finally found herself," Sigmon said. "She was hitting her spots and she’s such a good leader. I call her our mother hen. She takes care of everybody and luckily this weekend we were able to give it back to her a little bit."
In addition to nearly matching Sigmon inning for inning, Goluba also went 1-for-3 at the plate with a double. The star sophomore pitched all 29 of River Ridge's innings played this weekend, earning three victories along the way.
River Ridge’s Maguire was the lone Royal Knight to reach base safely twice Saturday night, going 1-for-2 with a walk.
For Beck, he said he leaves the tournament feeling even better about this year’s team, despite suffering the first loss of the season.
"That was a great game and great tourney for us. We came up here to test ourselves. We haven’t lost up in Pasco and we came down here to see what we can do. I think we were very representative and did very, very well."
All 16 teams involved were guaranteed the opportunity to play four games and River Ridge opened by beating Seminole, Bloomingdale and Durant.
Plant advanced to the title game by taking out Tarpon Springs on Friday night, then Dunedin and PHU on Saturday afternoon.
Following its 3-2 semifinal loss to Plant, host PHU earned itself third-place honors by beating Durant, 9-7. The ‘Canes opened with a win over Jefferson and then beat Pinellas Park Saturday afternoon before losing to the eventual champs.
Taking fifth place was East Lake, holding on to beat Dunedin, 10-7. The Eagles, coming off back-to-back championship game appearances in the spring tourney, beat Tampa Catholic on Friday night before losing to Durant on Saturday afternoon and then topping Bloomingdale.
Another Pinellas County program, Seminole High, won all three of its Saturday contests after losing to River Ridge in Friday’s opener. The Warhawks beat East Bay 5-2 in both teams’ final game.
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– Nikki Misner (5-3)LP
– Makenzie Goluba (9-1)
Nikki Misner – Win, 8.0 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 10 K, 1 BB
Sydney Socher – 3-for-4, 1 RBI, 1 SB (Game-winning RBI hit)
McKenzee Herron – 1-for-3, 1 2B
River Ridge (11-1)
Makenzie Goluba – Loss, 8.0 IP, 1 R, 1 ER, 7 H, 6 K, 4 BB – 1-for-3, 1 2B
Melissa Moore – 1-for-2, 1 2B, 1 Sac Bunt – Defense: 10 assists from third base
Kenzie Maguire – 1-for-2, 1 BB