Getting it done

HANCOCK – The Portage Lake All-Stars won the type of the game that could carry them deep into this year’s junior softball state tournament.

They dealt with the frustration of blowing a big lead, rallied from a deficit and manufactured clutch hits to earn an 11-9 eight-inning victory over the Keweenaw All-Stars for the District 11 title Thursday at the Hancock Driving Park. The victory sends Portage Lake to the state tournament in Georgetown, which begins on July 14.

“I thought the game was well-played on both sides,” Portage Lake head coach Sean Connors said. “I thought there were periods of excellent defense, excellent hitting and excellent pitching.”

Pitchers on each side consistently hit the strike zone, while hitters routinely made contact, spraying the ball across the field for defenders to make plays. Bases were earned and the game developed a much better flow than the matchup between the two on Wednesday – an 11-1 Portage Lake win.

For as well as the game was played, it had the dramatic conclusion it deserved.

With the score tied at 9 and two outs in the top of the eighth, Portage Lake’s Josie Connors drove a fly ball to right-center field, allowing Malone Jepsen and Jordyn Rowe to score the go-ahead runs from third and second for an 11-9 lead. It was Connors’ third hit of the game and her third and fourth RBIs.

“That’s huge for anybody, and with this level, (Josie) is one of the younger girls on the team, so that’s huge for her,” Connors said about Josie. “Her and Ally Ronis had fantastic nights and it’s wonderful to see the kids go out and work hard and come out with a victory.”

Ronis had two hits and two RBIs, while Cassidy Becia drove in two runs and Brooke Heinonen had three hits to spearhead Portage Lake’s 14-hit performance.

“It’s nice to have depth with our hitting,” Connors said. “Our team is full of good hitters and it’s very difficult to make the batting order Any girl can step up in any given night and have a breakout night.”

Connors’ eighth-inning heroics almost weren’t necessary; Portage Lake led 9-8 in the bottom of the seventh and was one out away from victory until Keweenaw regained life. After Keweenaw’s Megan Peterson singled and reached second on a stolen base, Elli Djerf smacked a line-drive single to right field for the game-tying RBI, scoring Peterson.

“I thought we did enough to win the game,” Keweenaw head coach Matt Vertin said. “But unfortunately, with two good teams, someone has to win and someone has to lose. Unfortunately, we just came on the short end of the stick.”

Game 2 between the district foes started off the same as Game 1 finished, as Portage Lake jumped out to a 4-0 lead, thanks to a two-run RBI triple from Ally Ronis and an RBI fielder’s choice by Becia in the first inning; an RBI groundout by Jepsen in the second scored Brooke Heinonen, giving Portage Lake the 4-0 edge.

But Keweenaw would rally in its half of the second, scoring six runs for a 6-4 advantage. Vera Peterson’s two-run RBI double reached the center-field fence to cut Portage Lake’s lead to 4-3; Peterson’s double was the first major hit for Keweenaw in the series and it provided her teammates with momentum and confidence going forward.

“Girls and boys – whatever sport it is – feed off of big plays and big innings,” Vertin said. “and that’s what we needed. If we don’t get one of those innings early on, we may very well end up the same way as Wednesday.”

Keweenaw’s Hannah Rautio scored on an error for her team’s sixth run of the inning.

The teams alternated leads before heading to the top of the seventh tied at 8. Portage Lake’s Becia grounded out for the second out, allowing Josie Connors to score from third for a 9-8 lead.

“I just told them, ‘This is your field. Don’t let someone take control on your field. Go out and take control of this game,'” Sean Connors said.

Josie Connors earned the win on the mound, pitching the final 6 1/3 innings; she allowed three earned runs on five hits and three walks, while striking out four. Delaney Heinonen pitched the first 1 2/3 before being relieved for Connors.

“Josie is our second pitcher, and I’m pleased the way she was able to come in cold and throw strikes and make pitches when she needed to,” Sean Connors said. “Delaney pitched a fantastic game yesterday and was a little bit sore today and was having some trouble today, so I’m sure it was nice for Delaney to see someone step up – and it’s nice to have depth at that position, especially moving downstate.”

Keweenaw’s Djerf pitched all eight innings and allowed 10 earned runs on 14 hits and one walk and struck out three. Offensively, Peterson and Sammy Plante led the team with two hits, each. Molly Helminen, Djerf and Peterson paced the team with two RBIs, each.