By Jeff Poole
For the last month, the Orange girls had been the AAA little engine that could. But Saturday night, the Hornets’ title train just ran out of steam. After breezing through the Commonwealth District Tournament and churning out solid wins on their way to a Northwest Regional Tournament title, the Hornets just couldn’t get up and over Great Bridge.
At a sports complex that overtly illustrated not all AAA schools are created (or funded) equally, the Orange County High School varsity softball team’s thrilling 2013 season was derailed with a 4-1 loss to Great Bridge Saturday evening at Westfield High School in Chantilly.
No manner of lucky socks, pre-game rituals or bleacher seating assignments could propel the Hornets into the state finals. If only wanting, cheering and additional high-fives were enough. Instead, the Wildcats punched their ticket to a state final title in a battle of the “Bridges,” beating Stone Bridge 10-9 Sunday afternoon.
In a tense, tied ball game with more hits than strikeouts, the Wildcats blended small and big ball for three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to vault themselves ahead of the Hornets and three outs from the state finals. When Orange couldn’t answer in the top of the seventh, the Hornets had to settle for the kind of post-game hugs that value consolation over celebration. Jubilant jumps and raised arms had been replaced with tearful eyes and heads buried into proud parental shoulders. The title trip was officially over.
Even in the loss, the girls got hearty cheers and praise from a supportive contingent of local family, friends, fans who’d ridden the Hornets’ postseason title train all the way to Chantilly Saturday evening and were equally proud to carry them back home to Orange.
“This season was outstanding,” Orange Head Coach Doris Buzzell said. “I am so happy with my girls. They played every game with heart. We were a family—not just a team.
“We want to thank the Orange County community for their support and for cheering us on,” she continued. “We are very proud to represent Orange County High School and to make history as the school’s first AAA Commonwealth District and Northwest Regional champions.”
The familiar formula that wrote that history failed the Hornets Saturday night when lead-off batter Aysha Richardson lined a bunt back to Delaney Ambrose at third. Anyone looking for an omen one way or the other may have latched onto that as a portent of trouble. In each postseason victory, Richardson has scored first and easily. Not so Saturday.
And when the Wildcats batted in the bottom half of the frame and promptly scored, there was a palpable sense of worry among the Hornet fans who were no doubt a little shocked. How dare someone use our game plan against us?
Olivia Smith singled sharply back toward Richardson who got a glove on the ball but couldn’t field it. Haley Jones picked it up in the middle of the infield but Smith was safe at first and Orange had to think, “We’ve seen this before—except it’s usually us.”
Smith stole second and took third on a passed ball as the Wildcats applied pressure to the Hornets early.
Richardson got Marlowe Paulk to pop up and Haley Jones ranged back from her position at shortstop to make a fine play for the first out. That brought up Chloe Carr who stroked a single to right that dropped in front of Kaitlyn Johnson and scored Smith to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead with an eye toward more. They almost got it as the Hornets suffered an uncharacteristically shaky inning.
“Don’t forget to breathe!” Jones’ father Harry shouted from beside the Hornet dugout. “Don’t forget to breathe.”
Richardson struck out Sydney Rupe but walked Ambrose before rallying to fan Mikayla Parker to end the inning.
“Lots of ballgame left. Lots of ballgame,” head coach Doris Buzzell offered her girls as they came off the field. “Don’t worry about it.”
Great Bridge pitcher Sydney Harless threw hard—not necessarily Aysha-hard—but hard enough and it wouldn’t take the Orange girls long to figure out their timing as she pumped fastball after fastball around the strike zone.
Leading off the second, Morgan Capaldo hit a flare over Parker’s head at first, but the lanky firstbaseman ranged back and made a nice overhead catch for the first out of the inning. Jamie Anderson grounded out to first for the second out and Lexi Bledsoe fanned to end the inning.
Richardson was sharp in the second, soliciting two groundouts back to the circle and a grounder to Jamie Anderson at second with an economy of pitches.
As unsettled as the Hornets had looked in the first, they looked like the well-oiled title machine in the second. That carried over to the third.
In a strange start to the inning, Kristen Anderson walked and Caroline Callaway attempted to bunt courtesy runner Cheyenne Williams to second. Callaway’s bunt barely cleared the plate and it was unclear whether the ball was foul or fair. Great Bridge catcher Jenna Meeks played it as fair—and the umpire didn’t seem to object, or make any audible call for that matter—as the Orange baserunners stood stunned. Meeks fired to first for the force and Williams bolted to second and was out easily. Suddenly, an inning of promise seemingly had been cut short.
Alexis Williams drew a full-count walk and Richardson stepped to the plate. The senior laced a double to left that nearly ripped off Cameryn Strother’s glove as Williams raced for third. After three straight foul balls, Ashleigh Williams singled up the middle to plate Williams and tie the game. Jones grounded out to short to end the inning, but the Hornets had done more than just tie the game—they’d energized themselves and their fans and reminded the Wildcats that they weren’t here by accident.
In the bottom of the third, Richardson solicited two more grounders back to the mound and a third after Carr’s second single of the game. Normally, the senior hurler takes care of many of the outs each game herself by striking out the opponents. Saturday, she was getting them out on ground balls back to her.
Orange looked to capitalize in the fourth—particularly when Capaldo singled to open the inning and took second on a wild pitch. Anderson flew out to right, but it was clear the Hornet girls were seeing the ball well and didn’t have any trouble hitting what Harless was pitching. The only problem was they were hitting it at the Wildcat defenders who played flawlessly in the field. Nowhere else was that more true than when Bledsoe hit a sharp ground ball to the right side of the infield that Sarah Cimring dove to glove, nabbing the Hornet catcher at first and keeping Capaldo from scoring. Anderson popped to third to end the frame, but runs seemed available.
Even the Hornet fans acknowledged the outstanding play, but jested Cimring good-naturedly not to do it again.
Richardson cruised through the home half of the fourth with a pop-up to Callaway, a strikeout and a pop-up to Jones, despite a two-out walk to her counterpart.
The Hornets looked to sting in the fifth. Callaway popped out to short and Alexis Williams fanned, but Richardson singled to left and set her sights on second. On the second pitch to Ashleigh Williams, Richardson bolted for second well ahead of the throw and slid in safely. Whether momentum or an overly aggressive swipe tag from shortstop Carr separated Richardson from the bag, the umpire changed his safe call to out and Orange—regardless of protest—was out of the inning.
“Keep your heads up!” Buzzell challenged her girls.
The Hornets held the Wildcats scoreless in the bottom of the inning with Jones making a nice play near the fence behind third base for the third out.
Williams led off the sixth with her second hit of the game, but was erased on Jones’ fielder’s choice. After five fouls, Capaldo fanned and Anderson popped to the pitcher to end the inning.
Neither a game nor an inning can define a season, but Saturday night, it certainly defined the outcome. After cruising through the Wildcats’ line-up, Richardson ran into trouble in the sixth.
Rupe singled to right with the ball dusting the rightfield chalk line. As she exited for courtesy runner Megan Balkus, Rupe instructed her teammate sharply, “Score me.” Two batters later, she would.
Ambrose ripped a double to the leftfield fence and Great Bridge coach Kirk Clayton held Balkus at third as Jones caught the relay from Williams and fired home. Once that throw sailed to the backstop, he realized his mistake, but it wouldn’t matter. A passed ball later, Balkus raced home beating the throw from Bledsoe to the plate and the Wildcats had the lead again. Meanwhile, Ambrose had taken third in the process. Parker then dropped a perfect bunt in that void between the plate and the pitching circle that plated Balkus and put her safely at first. Runners on the corners and still no one out. The sun was setting on the evening and the Hornets’ season.
Harless hit a sharp grounder Richardson fielded with her stomach as much as her glove and erased Parker at second. Harless reached and took second on an overthrow and later stole third. Meeks singled her home and the Wildcats had a three-run lead.
Richardson struck out Strother, but walked Smith and gave up a single to Paulk to load the bases. A fly-out to Johnson in right mercifully ended the inning.
The Orange girls couldn’t rally, but they went down swinging.
Bledsoe grounded sharply back to Harless who fired to first for the first out of the seventh. Kristen Anderson hit a grounder to second that Cimring fielded cleanly for the second out. Callaway ended the inning with a line-out to short and the title train simply ran out of steam.
The Hornets got five hits off of Harless, who walked two and struck out four. Richardson struck out four and gave up nine hits. Ashleigh Williams had two hits and a run batted in for Orange. Richardson added two Hornet hits as well.
The Hornets say goodbye to graduating seniors Richardson, Jones, Kristen Anderson and Callaway while the balance of the team returns next year.
“These girls were together on the field. When one was not able to get a hit the others stepped up to pick each other up,” Buzzell said. “There will be some big shoes to fill, but we will be fine next year. I know we will be just fine as many games as these girls came through for us.”
“You had a great season and gave us a lot to be proud of,” OCHS Principal Doug Duncan told the girls after the game.
“It was funny. I went to Richmond on Sunday to a travel softball tournament and people were just talking about Orange County softball,” Buzzell said. “It is great we are back in people’s heads.”