WHEELING - Buckeye Local hadn't won an OVAC softball championship since 1999.
That all changed on Saturday afternoon at the J.B. Chambers I-470 Complex after the Panthers (17-6) posted a wild, 8-6, decision against Meadowbrook to claim the Class 4A title on Lisa's Field.
"It hasn't been easy all season. Why start now?" first-year Buckeye Local coach Joe Soos allowed after watching his team nearly cough up an 8-2 lead after five innings. "Going in as the No. 2 seed you've got to beat a good team to win the championship, and we had enough to get it done.
"I can't be more proud of a group of girls."
Things didn't start off well for the Panthers as Angela Primovic's first pitch hit Sarah Stine. Stine moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and to third on a wild pitch. Alyse Dudley's groundout chased her home for a 1-0 lead.
Buckeye Local responded when sophomore Karlee Leonard led off the top of the second with an infield single and freshman Kierstyn Czuchran blasted an 0-1 pitch well over the fence in right-center field for a two-run homer and a 2-1 Panthers' lead. It was her eighth roundtripper of the season.
"Kierstyn can really hit the ball for a freshman," Soos said with a smile. "She plays a lot of travel ball in the summer, probably 70-80 games."
Dana Bettineschi's one-out RBI double off the fence in dead center scored Taryn Tonkovich, who had tripled to the same part of the field one at-bat earlier, to make it 3-1.
A two-out error and Sammy Frizzell's run-scoring single to right cut the Colts' deficit to 3-2, but she was erased trying for second on a fine relay to avoid further damage.
The defensive gem seemed to spark the Panthers' bats as Aliyah Marelli led off the fifth by being hit with a pitch. Tonkovich dropped a single into right as Marelli went to third. When the ball trickled away. Tonkovich alertly took second. After the next two batters struck out, senior Tori Nest laced a two-run single to right, bumping the margin to 6-2.
Buckeye Local wasn't done, however, as it plated another pair of runs in the sixth and seemed to be on cruise control. Kaylee Decesare legged out an infield single leading off and Sydney Omaits walked.
Marelli dropped down a bunt single to load the bases and, with one out, Bettineschi was walked to force in a run. Then, with two outs, Czuchran looked at ball four as another run was forced across the plate, making it 8-2.
Meadowbrook didn't earn the No. 1 seed by rolling over when times got tough. The Colts put together a four-hit, four-run bottom of the sixth to whittle the margin to 8-6, and left the bases loaded when Ivy Starcher, who came on in relief of Primovic two batters prior, recorded an inning-ending strikeout.
"Ivy struggled a little bit when she first came in, but she settled down and got us out of the jam," Soos assessed. "Angela did a fine job, but we didn't make a couple of plays behind her, or she might've finished out the game."
When Omaits gloved a fly ball off the bat of Frizzell with two outs in the seventh, the long wait for another OVAC softball championship was over in Connorville.
"Meadowbrook is one heckuva team and they played well, too," Soos added. "These girls have been through a lot in the last few years.
"I'm their third coach in four years," he said of his senior group. "What can you say about them? They've been a big part of us for four years, so this is really special for them. They've performed well."
Tonkovich, Bettineschi, Nest and Decesare all had multi-hit games for Buckeye Local. Bettineschi and Czuchran also had a trio of runs batted in each, while Nest drove home two.
Primovic struck out just two and walked one in 5.2 innings of work. She scattered 11 hits and threw just 73 pitches before being pulled. Buckeye Local is back in action Tuesday at Shadyside.