The smallest of hits caused the biggest of hurts for the Kenton Ridge softball team Saturday night in the Division II state championship game.
Newark Licking Valley used three bunt singles, a sacrifice and a Cougars throwing error in the bottom of the fifth to produce three runs that ended up being the difference in the Panthers’ 6-5 victory at Firestone Stadium.
“For them to come out and bunt, bunt, bunt, they got us,” Ridge coach Sarah Ivory said. “We didn’t cover it. We didn’t play the defense we should have. That killed us.”
The loss snapped a 20-game winning streak and forced the Cougars to settle for a 31-3 record and the fourth state runner-up finish in school history.
Licking Valley (24-7) not only won the first state championship in program history, but the school’s first team title in any sport.
“Now that we’ve actually won it, we’re going to come back and people are going to know who we are,” said catcher Kori Caughenbaugh, one of seven sophomore starters for the Panthers.
Kenton Ridge pitcher Courtney Lopez, who threw a three-hit shutout in Friday’s 1-0 semifinal win against Granville, held Licking Valley to one hit through the first three innings, but sophomore Sierra McConnell led off the fourth with a solo home run to right.
The Panthers tacked on two more runs with the help of another bunt single and Ridge throwing error to go up 3-0.
The Cougars answered with a pair in the top of the fifth on an error and a wild pitch to get back within one, but then five consecutive Licking Valley batters put down bunts in the bottom of the fifth, leading to a three-run inning and a 6-2 lead.
“It’s a little frustrating because I know we can cover these,” Lopez said. “We just weren’t on our game tonight.”
Offensively, things were better for Ridge, which took advantage of a one-out error and a two-out walk to start a three-run rally in the sixth to get within 6-5. But Panthers pitcher Shelby McCombs stranded the tying run on third and finished things off in the seventh.
“They’re in the state final game for a reason,” Licking Valley coach Mark Paxton said. “We got up 6-2 and they battled. So then we had to battle back. It was an epic battle, I guess you could say, for the final game of the season.”
Sophomore Brittany Harding, who had the big triple and scored the game’s only run in the semifinal win, went 3-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI, while sophomore Learic Kinser was 1-for-3 with a run and an RBI and freshman Sarah Albaugh scored a pair of runs to lead a Ridge offense that almost saved the defense.
“We didn’t give up, so that says a lot about our team,” Ridge senior catcher Paige McCary said. “It just wasn’t the right time to have a bad game.”