AVON LAKE — Elyria High’s April Howser put the Pioneers on her back several times last season during the team’s march to the Division I state championship.
It appears the senior is ready to do some more heavy lifting.
With Amherst’s Madison O’Berg dominating in the circle early during Thursday’s district championship game, Howser broke through with the first hit off the Comets ace, and finished with half of Elyria’s six hits in the game — including the last and biggest.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Howser lined a shot into right-center field to give the Pioneers a 5-4 victory.
“I was very nervous going into that at-bat but I had confidence in myself because I’m a very good hitter in these types of situations,” Howser said.
“I was really hoping that she’d throw outside because the last two times she threw outside I was able to punch it up the middle, and that’s exactly what she did.”
The inning began with freshman Kerrigan Williams working a walk off O’Berg, stealing second and advancing to third when the throw bounced off second base and trickled into the outfield.
After O’Berg struck out Jessica Chapman, she intentionally walked Damia Parks and Keearah Williams to load the bases.
The strategy worked momentarily as Macy Taylor grounded to third baseman Lauren Kachure, who threw home for the second out, but Howser foiled the plan with her clutch hit.
“The whole game our goal was to move the ball in, out, up, down — keep them off balance with the change-up — and Howser’s a great hitter,” Comets coach Lacey Reichert said. “You’re just hoping in that situation maybe she pounds one in the ground or hits one right at an outfielder, because there’s obviously no margin for error at that point.”
Elyria coach Ken Fenik called Howser “one of the best hitters in Elyria High softball history” and said he was pleasantly surprised to see her striding to the plate after Amherst recorded the second out.
“When I looked and saw her going into the box, because I lost track when they walked Damia, I said, ‘April, you’re due today,’” Fenik said. “She knocked her hand up a little earlier in the game, but, man, what a nice hit. Unbelievable.”
The Comets got on the scoreboard first, taking a 1-0 lead in the fourth when Kylie McGraw singled to right field to drive in Delaney Stojkov, who was pinch running for O’Berg.
Elyria answered with three runs in the bottom of the fourth. Taylor walked and stole second before Howser singled to right field to tie the game. Howser scored when Maycee Godbolt tripled to the right-field fence and Godbolt made it 3-1 on Chapman’s sacrifice fly.
Amherst answered with three runs to regain the lead in the fifth, with O’Berg’s double to the right-center fence scoring Kate Iliff and Lindsey Reavis, and Kasey McGraw scoring on a sacrifice fly by Lauren Kachure.
Elyria tied the game in the sixth inning, with Godbolt scoring on Kerrigan Williams’ bloop single to shallow right field.
“That’s good high school softball,” Reichert said. “We told our girls, ‘Come out, compete as hard as you can, play the best game that you can,’ and we did ... and they did. Both teams went at it and unfortunately someone had to walk away with a loss.”
O’Berg had pitched a one-hitter in eight innings against Olmsted Falls on Wednesday — never allowing a runner to reach second base — and was perfect through the first three innings against Elyria. After the Pioneers strung together some hits and scored some runs, O’Berg seemed to go deeper into counts with the Elyria hitters, allowing seven walks and striking out just one after the first three innings.
“She did get a little rattled, that’s something we’ve always known about her as a pitcher, but she’s still very good,” Howser said. “We just shortened up our swings and were able to punch it through, and that was mostly the goal.”
Fenik noticed a change in O’Berg’s body language and adjusted the game plan in an attempt to build her frustration.
“I saw the same thing and as the game went on we said, ‘Make her keep throwing, make her keep throwing’ and that’s what we did,” he said. “She’s a great pitcher, and maybe that eight-inning game yesterday had a little something to do with it, but she throws hard.”
Howser said she thought back to last season’s state championship game because of the back-and-forth nature of Thursday’s battle, and she knows the Comets gave Elyria their best shot.
“They’re a great team. Going into the game I thought they were going to hit the ball and they did,” she said. “Their pitcher pitched amazing and they should be really proud of themselves for the way they played, but I’m happy that we won because it’s my senior year and I wanted it to continue.”
It will continue ... Wednesday at 2 p.m. when the Pioneers face Perrysburg at Clyde High in the regional semifinals.
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook and follow him @ShaunBennettct on Twitter.