ATHENS — Sheridan coach Troy Wolfe said he has had more talented teams than his 2022 squad. He has rarely had one with more grit.
Thursday’s game against Athens was all the proof one needed to see.
Down to their final two outs in a Division II district final game against Athens, the Generals were staring down the barrel of another bitter loss to the Bulldogs with a regional berth on the line.
A furious seventh-inning rally turned the tables. Freshman shortstop Payton Powell’s two-run double to the gap in right field clinched a thrilling 7-6 win at Ohio University, sending the Generals to the regional for the first time since 2019.
Sheridan (21-7), in the district finals for the sixth straight year, advanced to the Pickerington regional. It missed out in 2021 after Olivia Banks led a wild Athens rally in a district final loss at Trimble.
When Banks blasted a game-tying three-run homer to center field in a five-run sixth inning, which put Athens up, 6-4, it looked like another chapter in the book of General heartbreaks.
Sheridan’s freshmen had other plans.
Cate Conrad popped out to lead off the inning, but Avery Mueller started the rally with a double to right field. Freshman Cora Hall then hit a sharp grounder that was misplayed by the second baseman, and Hall was called safe at first base on a close play that drew the ire of the large throng of Bulldog fans near the play.
Sheridan made them pay for their transgressions.
Mueller took home the next play when Montana O'Brien looped a well-placed single between the shortstop and second-base bag.
Three pitches later, with O'Brien representing the winning run on first, Powell laced a liner to the gap in right field that got past the center fielder. Hall and O'Brien scored in succession, setting off a jubilant celebration as Powell was mobbed by teammates.
Powell, admittedly nervous as she stepped to the plate, never felt her feet hit the ground on her way to second. It was the biggest hit of her young career.
"I was like, 'oh my gosh Tana, you better start running,' because I was going to catch her," Powell said. "It was just so exciting. We played great. It was just amazing. I just knew everyone was behind me and I knew I could do it."
Powell said she felt confident a rally would commence with the top half of the order due up. The Generals' 3-4-5-6 hitters of Mueller, Hall, O'Brien and Powell combined for nine hits and seven RBIs.
"I knew they were all capable of getting a hit and getting on base," Powell said. "We just had to do something with it."
Wolfe echoed that, adding that the comeback was emblematic of the team's demeanor throughout the season. The team replaced five four-year players, including All-Ohio pitcher Taylor Pagan, but the newcomers congealed just in time.
Hall and Powell are among the newcomers who have played critical roles since the season's outset. On Thursday they were two of the game's biggest factors.
"When you change from a 4-1 lead in the sixth and just score a couple of runs, and they bounce back and score five, and you’re going against a team that beat you the year before, you can quit," Wolfe said. "But that’s not what this group does. We are going to fight until the last out."
Hall slugged an RBI double in the fifth and took a three-hitter and a 4-1 lead into the sixth. She retired 10 consecutive batters after yielding two hits and a run in the first, but trouble came fast and furious.
Bailee Toadvine and Kayla Hammonds started the sixth with singles. Three pitches later, the ever-dangerous Banks belted a no-doubter just left of the scoreboard to erase the deficit.
The Bulldogs weren't done.
After two straight outs, Olivia Kaiser took a borderline pitch with two strikes that could have been an inning-ending strikeout. The next pitch, she lined a single to left.
Taylor Orcutt followed with a liner to left that fell for a hit then Ashleigh James followed with a single to left, sending two runs home to make it 6-4.
There was no panic in the General dugout.
"That kind of thing, it only happens once in your high school career," Hall said. "Same thing with the seniors. You want to win this. Athens, last year, we lost it. I didn't want to have a repeat this year. That was my mentality. We're not losing this.
"I was confident as soon as Avery Mueller came up," Hall said. "I was confident because she's my catcher. As soon as she walked in (to the dugout) I said, 'you've had me this entire time, you've got me now.' She did her job, I did my job, Tana did hers and Payton did hers. We found a way to move on."
Hall allowed six earned runs in a complete game but struck out nine and walked only one. Powell finished with four RBIs on a double and single and O'Brien drove in two runs with three singles, while Hall doubled and singled as Sheridan had 12 hits.
Six players had hits for the Bulldogs, while pitcher Ashleigh James, who beat Sheridan in last year's district final, pitched a complete game in the loss.
As for Banks, she again showed why she is one of the best players in the Southeast District. She also hit game-tying three-run homer in last year's game.
"Deja vu with her," Athens coach Roger Bissell said. "She came up in a big situation. She tied the game for us."
Sheridan advanced to play Muskingum Valley League-Big School Division winner John Glenn (22-4), the reigning regional champion, in the semifinals on May 25 at Pickerington Central.
The winner gets either Gnadenhutten Indian Valley or the Carroll Bloom-Carroll/Heath winner at noon on May 28.
John Glenn handed Sheridan two of their losses in the regular season — 5-0 and 3-1, respectively.
"We have to hit," Conrad said. "We have to be selective in the box. We always get excited when we play them, because it's a good team against a good team, and we just get antsy and swing at stuff we don't need to be swinging at. We need to focus on our contact and make the plays that we can make."
Wolfe spent much of his pregame speech pumping up his players on the task next week. He made no bones about the Muskies' talent and accomplishments, but he also didn't discount his own team's chances.
Of their 28 games, 14 were against teams that made district tournaments.
"Look, they're good," Wolfe said. "You don't win 32 straight games in the league and whatever without being good. But you know what? So are we. It's one game. You don't have to be the best team over two years. You have to be the best team that one day. We're going to compete. I guarantee they're going to give us their best shot."
This article originally appeared on Zanesville Times Recorder: Sheridan freshmen fuel district final softball comeback vs. Athens