Salt Fork softball keeps battling
FISHER — Jenna Bryant is a one-of-a-kind player for the Salt Fork softball team.
As the team’s lone senior, she is depended on for more than offense and defense. She’s in a leadership role for a squad that started a freshman pitcher in Wednesday’s Class 1A regional semifinal against an opponent the Storm was winless against during the regular season.
Her message is one of simplicity.
“It’s really important to keep fighting through,” Bryant said. “I try my hardest to cheer others on when they’re batting.”
Schlarman’s Vermilion Valley Conference champions scored first, but Salt Fork scored the most and handed the Hilltoppers a 5-3 loss to move into Saturday’s championship game.
The Hilltoppers won both regular season games between the opponents, but Salt Fork wasn’t discouraged when trailing before it batted for the second time.
“We didn’t give up when we made mistakes,” Bryant said. “We didn’t put our heads down. The other two times, we slowed down a little bit.”
One point of emphasis for Salt Fork coach Kali Ford was critical when the Storm took the lead for good by scoring three unearned runs in the bottom of the second inning. The first two runs scored after bunts to the pitcher resulted in throwing errors to first base.
“We’ve worked hard on executing and laying down bunts to put runners in scoring position,” Ford said. “We had nine flyouts the last time against Schlarman.
“By putting the ball on the ground, that makes them field, throw and catch. We have more of an opportunity to get on with errors.”
Salt Fork (14-7) ultimately needed more than the unearned runs. In a game where Schlarman’s strategy against former Hilltopper Lea Hall, Salt Fork’s slugging catcher, worked to perfection, solo home runs by two other Salt Fork players accounted for the final margin.
After stroking a two-out single in the first inning, Hall received intentional walks the next three times she batted, all with two outs and a runner at second base. Schlarman pitcher Maria Rangel (15-9) escaped unscathed in those innings but yielded a two-out home run to Nicole Weston in the third inning and a one-out blast by Bryant in the sixth.
Ford didn’t quibble with the decision not to pitch to Hall, who has hammered a team-high eight home runs this spring.
“She has been known to jack a home run or two,” Ford said. “I probably would have done the same thing if I were in her (Schlarman coach Mary Lovejoy) position.”
Though the Storm committed two errors, the team’s late-game defense was one factor that Lovejoy cited as instrumental in the outcome.
“We had a lot of hard, hard hits, but Salt Fork made some good plays,” Lovejoy said.
Two of the sterling stops came in the final 21/3 innings to help freshman Logan Sanford (6-3) retire the final seven batters she faced in her first postseason start.
Salt Fork third baseman Emilie McFadden snared a sizzling line drive to end the fifth inning with a Hilltopper in scoring position. In the following inning, second baseman Allie Trosper made a diving catch on a popup near the bag. Hall also had a catch at the backstop where she extended her glove and reached for the ball before it hit the fence to become a dead ball.
Sanford did the rest, walking no one in a three-hitter. She struck out two and also hit two batters.
Throughout the year, the innings for Sanford and Peyton Meade were within one-third of one another prior to the regional semifinals.
Ford said she started Sanford but was prepared to make a change “with a quick hook, if we needed to. Peyton does a great job of coming in and throwing strikes.”
Rangel finished with a five-hitter. She struck out two and issued two non-intentional walks.
No player from either squad had more than one hit.
Salt Fork will play the top-seeded host Fisher team in Saturday’s 11 a.m. title game. At stake is a berth in Tuesday’s Lewistown Sectional as well as the first regional crown in softball for the victorious team.