NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Seven years of tournament frustration ended for Columbia on Saturday in a cloud of dust.
The Raiders defeated Independence in a 2-1 thriller to win a Division III district title for the first time since 1992. It was their third overall.
They had lost district finals four of the previous five years — by 1-0 scores to Wellington in 2008 and ’09 — and three district semifinals dating to 2006.
Columbia sealed it with a white-knuckle play at the plate for the game’s final out.
Catcher Christine Lyzen put Raiders fans on their feet when she tagged out a diving Marissa Artrip to end it. Lyzen went to her knees to take the throw from second baseman Emma Sullivan and make a sweeping tag.
“It was awesome,” Lyzen said. “It was a great throw by Emma and I was holding onto (the ball) so tight. I feel really great right now.”
The Raiders (26-4) earned a 5 p.m. Wednesday regional semfinal date with Loudonville at Massillon’s Washington High School. The top-seeded Red Birds defeated Waynedale, 4-2, on Friday to win the Creston district championship. Independence finished the season 10-8.
Right fielder and cleanup batter Nicolette Kunath gave Columbia a big boost when she hit the first pitch of her first at-bat over the left-field fence leading off the second inning. Her ninth homer of the season gave the Raiders a 1-0 lead, and she was walked intentionally thereafter.
“It was a surprise to me,” Kunath said. “I was in the back of the box like coach always tells me. I just got to see it and ripped it.”
Independence tied it with an unearned run in the third. Coincidentally, it was Artrip who scored after she reached on an error leading off. The Blue Devils went on to mount their biggest threat, loading the bases with two outs. But Columbia shortstop Emily Viccarone snagged a sharp liner off Sierra Gorman’s bat to end the inning.
Columbia got the eventual winner with an unearned run in its half of the third. Viccarone, who reached on an error with one out, moved to second on Kaley Marshall’s grounder to the right side. Viccarone then scored when Sullivan also reached on an error and made it to second base on the play.
From that point, Raiders pitcher Kailey Minarchick retired 11 of the final 15 Blue Devils batters, recording three of her six strikeouts. She walked none in improving to 11-1 for the season.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet, but I’m excited that we won,” Minarchick said. “Independence is a great team and they put up a great battle. But our defense was outstanding. I don’t know what I’d do without them. I know I can depend on them.”
Ken Lugo, Columbia’s first-year coach, expressed relief.
“After seven years, we finally came through,” said Lugo, formerly a longtime Raiders assistant. “It was a crazy finish, but a good win. The girls worked hard and knew they had to come to play. They had some jitters in the beginning, but they came through and played when they had to play.”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.