COLLEGE PARK — The Lions’ sparkling defense could only do so much.
La Plata High’s softball team hit the ball where there were no Queen Anne’s County fielders throughout Saturday afternoon’s Class 2A state final: down the line, up the middle, shallow, deep, in the gaps, and also over the fences.
It all added up to a second straight state championship for the Warriors, this one via a 9-0 final at University of Maryland’s Robert E. Taylor Stadium.
The Lions, in their first ever state final, were also held down at the dish by La Plata senior Ava Krahling, who spun a complete-game masterpiece in her final high school game, allowing only one hit and two walks while striking out 11.
“Those hits, those girls really earned them,” Queen Anne’s head coach Kim Betts said of La Plata via a telephone interview Saturday evening. “La Plata did a great job, they were hitting the ball hard, not much you can do about it.
“We didn’t string any hits together today,” Betts added. “Even when we had a nice hard shot, it was right at someone ... we weren’t able to find the holes. Eleven strikeouts, that’s a big number — their pitcher did a nice job. We could have made some adjustments, but we didn’t execute, and that happens. We didn’t put the ball in play as much as we typically do.”
Queen Anne’s finished the season 19-4, but nine was the magic number down the stretch: the Lions won their Class 2A East Region final over North East-Cecil, 9-4, their state semifinal bout with Middletown, 9-0, before ending up on the wrong side of a nine-spot in the title tilt.
“We’ve been thinking about it since the beginning of the season,” Queen Anne’s sophomore ace Cameron Whiteford said of her team making the extended run in 2019. “It was kind of unreal, getting here. When we won the regional game, everything was on fire after that. We finished the regular season kind of rough with two losses in a row, and then when we won that regional game, everything was on, and then same thing in the semifinal game, everything was on.”
La Plata has now won three of the past four 2A state championships, with Krahling pitching the last two seasons. She threw a neat-and-tidy 81 pitches in the seven innings, including 58 strikes, while benefiting from some slick fielding behind her.
“This one definitely hit me in the heart, because it was the last one,” Krahling said. “It was a good feeling. We were up, and I was comfortable, but I knew by defense had my back. I have a lot of trust in my defense, I have this whole year. They have never let me down; especially in this game, they were excellent.”
Added La Plata head coach Tara Larkin: “She has been in these pressure situations before. She’s our senior leader, and she was just firing it in there.”
Krahling pitched a 1-2-3 top of the first, settling down after Lions junior Julia Smith led off with a sharp, line out to La Plata left fielder Sierra Sanderson for the first out. Whiteford sailed her first pitch of the game well over catcher Kamryn Brandt’s head, but calmed down to twirl her own three-up, three-down bottom of the frame.
The Warriors (19-4) got the only run they needed in the bottom of the second, when junior third baseman Ryanne Saluter lofted a Whiteford offering over the left-field fence for a leadoff home run. Whiteford escaped further damage after allowing a double to Lacie Hardesty and walking Kelsey Hanks, striking out Jasmine Wathen swinging and Peyton Krahling looking to keep it at 1-0.
“Early on, I had to kind of control my nerves,” Whiteford said. “After the first inning, I felt way better. Keeping them off base in the first inning kind of settled me down. But they hit the ball, they hit the ball well.”
La Plata, after Krahling sat the Lions down in order in the top of the third, plated two more in the bottom of the inning, junior Sydney Bales smoking her team’s second straight leadoff home run, before Hardesty plated Saluter with a well-placed single down the third-base line.
A six-run bottom of the fourth inning locked up the championship.
La Plata’s Jasmine Wathen began the inning with a single to center, and gave way to courtesy runner Olivia Boyce. Peyton Krahling dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt to advance Boyce, and Bales followed with a single to the left-center alley, then took second on a throwing error from the outfield by Queen Anne’s Belle Fields.
Sanderson’s infield single to third scored Boyce, and Bales scooted home when Brandt’s throw to cut her down ended up near the La Plata dugout. Another scoring hit, this one off shortstop Jayci Chamberlain’s bat, brought Sanderson home, ending Whiteford’s day.
“They struck the ball,” Whiteford said. “They were powerful, there weren’t many cheap hits; they were driving the gaps.”
Added Larkin: “We put a bunch of hits together. We had that spark at the beginning of the inning and kept it going with a lot of good hits and good baserunning. That was our goal going into this game, to have that one big inning where we blow it open and give us some momentum.”
Freshman Emily Gunther relieved Whiteford, and walked Saluter and Ava Krahling. With the bases loaded and one out, Hardesty cleared the bags on one swing, doubling into the left-center gap to score Chamberlain, Saluter and Sarah Sharpe, running for Ava Krahling.
The 9-0 lead was never threatened. Ava Krahling had her no-hitter busted with two outs in the top of the sixth on a single by Queen Anne’s junior Taylor Walls, but by then she was buzzing fastball after fastball by the Lions. Ten of Ava Krahling’s 11 whiffs came on swinging strikes, and she also capably mixed in an assortment of off-speed pitches.
“I felt a lot more relieved after that big inning,” Ava Krahling said. “I was still nervous, because teams can always come back, but I knew we had it then, with the nine-run lead.”
The Lions graduate only two this spring, signaling staying power after the best season in team history.
“It was huge for our program,” Betts said. “We won our first region, to get to this level, it was awesome. A lot of work went into it this past offseason and they worked hard in practice, so it means a lot for our program to reach the states.
“We have a talented team, we’re young, “Betts added. “We’re proud of them and La Plata earned that win. We broke so many records for Queen Anne’s softball and they need to keep their heads up and be proud of that.”