WEST LAFAYETTE — Some days it’s just your day and unfortunately for the Pioneer Panthers it was just the Indianapolis Lutheran Saints’ day on Saturday.
Rylee Morris, who was featured in the Indianapolis Star this week for excelling her senior season after losing her grandfather to cancer earlier in her high school career, had the game-winning hit with two outs in the top of the seventh inning to break open a tie game in the Saints’ 4-1 win in the Class A state championship game at Bittering Stadium at Purdue.
The No. 1-ranked Panthers (31-3) entered boasting of the highest scoring offense in the state and one of the best pitching duos in the state.
But their potent offense was kept off balance all game by the Saints’ pitching.
The Saints’ (21-7-1) record was deceiving considering they play a schedule consisting of a lot of the largest schools in the state. They have wins over Ben Davis, Warren Central and Lawrence Central this season, so it was no fluke that they won.
The Panthers were just kept off balance at the plate and hit too many hard-hit balls that went foul, similar to the 2-1 regional win over Morgan Township that they were able to survive. But they didn’t keep enough of those fair and left too many runners on base.
“They got the timely hit when they needed to. We left six base runners stranded in the first three innings. That kills you,” Pioneer coach Gabby Thomas said.
The Panthers also had uncharacteristic errors. They were undone by the same thing that sunk the best ball teams in Cass County all spring— Lewis Cass baseball in sectional play and Logansport baseball in regional play — costly errors.
“You’ve got to play error-less ball on the big stage and we didn’t,” Thomas said. “We came out tight, I think. We didn’t play loose like I know we can play. Any other day maybe it’s a different story. But sometimes you’re on, you’re on, you’re off, you’re off.”
Two errors got Lutheran on the board in the top of the fifth inning to break a scoreless tie and take a 1-0 lead.
The Panthers battled back in the sixth with a run to tie it. Mackenzie Walker hit a shot to left field off of the left fielder’s glove for a leadoff double. Madison Blickenstaff bunted her over to third. Mackenzie Robinson followed with an RBI sac fly to center to tie the game at 1-apiece.
But the joy was short-lived as the Saints loaded the bases with one out in the seventh on a single to center, a walk and a single down the right field line. Pioneer freshman Hailey Cripe then got a popup to second for the second out. But Morris lined a 1-2 pitch into center field for a two-run single to put the Saints up 3-1. Quinn Johnson followed with an RBI single to make it 4-1.
Alexis Robinson had a one-out single in the bottom of the seventh. But Lutheran reliever Miranda Dunn got a groundout to third and a line out to center to end the game, giving the Saints their third state championship in softball and first since 2007.
Dunn allowed one hit in 1 1/3 innings of relief in the win. Junior starter Kaylee Gregory allowed one run on seven hits and two walks, striking out seven in 5 2/3 innings pitched.
“She had a really good curveball that was getting a lot of us on that outside corner,” Robinson said of Gregory.
“She just had a good screwball and could throw those changeups and we just couldn’t put the bat to the ball,” Pioneer senior Haley Gleitz added.
Added coach Thomas: “She had some spin on it and she was getting that outside call. We just didn’t make the quicker adjustment, I guess.”
Cripe went the distance for the Panthers, allowing four runs (three earned) on eight hits, four walks and a hit batsman, striking out 10.
Sophomore Hailey Gotshall was available to pitch, Thomas said, but she hadn’t pitched since May 21 — which was 18 days ago — due to a ribcage muscle injury.
“She’s feeling better. But Cripe got us to this point. She pitched a great game,” Thomas said. “We just didn’t back her up like we knew how and we didn’t get those runs for her to help her. We give her some runs, she’s going to hold her ground.”
It just wasn’t the Panthers’ year after winning it all last year. They suffered a similar loss in the state volleyball tournament last fall. It’s another loss that stings.
“They’re a really good ball team. You can’t just come in here and think we’re just going to win every state championship that we show up at,” Alexis Robinson said. “We definitely didn’t get the hits when we needed them. We left a lot of runners on base today. But some days it’s ours, some days it’s the other team’s. It’s just the nature of the beast. That’s how the ball goes and it just wasn’t ours today.”
Freshman Kylie Farris went 2-for-3 to lead the Panthers at the plate. The Robinson sisters, Gleitz, Gotshall, and Madison Blickenstaff each added a hit. Each team had eight hits apiece. Pioneer stranded nine runners to Lutheran's eight. Pioneer committed three errors to Lutheran's zero.
The Pioneer softball team will move up to Class 2A the next two seasons due to the success factor but with Cripe and Gotshall back on the mound and seven starters returning overall they’ll be fine.
But they will miss their senior class of Robinson, Gleitz, Cassidy Morris, Mikenna Landis and Allison Foerg, as the Class of 2019 might go down as the most athletic in Pioneer history after the Panthers also won back-to-back state championships in football.
“We’re going to miss them,” Thomas said. “They did a great job of leading. They’ve led since freshman year, really. Just their characteristic of going out there, going hard every pitch, every at-bat, every play. They’re going to be missed.”
And who knows what would have happened if Landis would have never got hurt. She tore her ACL in a sectional basketball game and just over three months removed from surgery did not play on Saturday. When healthy, she is one of the best leadoff hitters, base stealers and run scorers in the state.
Robinson was able to add to Pioneer’s impressive showing at state finals as she was named the IHSAA Mental Attitude Award. She joins Lisa (Goltry) Daily (2005) and Alyssa Shaw (2018) in softball, Madison Kiser (2017) in girls track, Haley Gleitz (2018) in volleyball and Tayt Odom (1997), Parker Englert (2014), Austin Harmon (2016), Garrett Schroder (2017) and Dustin Sparks (2018) in football who have all earned the award from Pioneer.
“That was crazy. That’s something I’ve been wanting ever since I went to the football state game my eighth grade year and I was like, ‘That would be so cool to win one of those.’ I just think that’s such an honor. This goes back to the Pioneer community again. That’s what really counts,” Robinson said.
She also thanked the large Pioneer crowd in attendance in what was a standing-room only crowd.
“We filled up over half the bleachers,” she said, adding that a good percentage of the population that lives in the Pioneer school district was in attendance.
“I think all of them showed up,” she said.
The Panthers are getting used to playing in front of huge crowds at big-time venues, and with what they have coming back in several sports, that trend could very well continue in the near future.