To win a pitching duel with Spring Grove’s Hailey Kessinger, Maggie Rickrode had to rely on a little help from her friends — and family members.
The control issues that plagued Delone Catholic’s ace throughout the season flared up again during the YAIAA Championship game. Yet despite allowing 11 free passes, Rickrode grounded the Rockets in a 3-1 victory in nine innings at New Oxford.
Rickrode’s cousin and backstop Katie Ernst went 5-for-5 at the plate, driving home the game-winning runs in the top of the ninth. Her father and coach, Matt Rickrode, rode a hunch to intentionally walk the ninth batter in the Rocket lineup to load the bases with two away, trusting that his daughter could set down the leadoff hitter. Last but not least, left fielder Ashley Stanley and second baseman Kylie Funkhouser came up with a couple of defensive gems apiece to keep the Rockets at bay.
When it was all said and done, the Squirettes walked off the field at New Oxford with their first-ever YAIAA softball title in the game’s 11-year history. It was also the first time any school below Division 2 claimed the championship.
“I told the girls this was like a David and Goliath thing,” Matt Rickrode said. “We weren’t given too much of a chance, but we told them they needed to step up and show everyone that we are better than what people say we are.”
After two innings, the Squirettes looked like they might be in for a long day — and not of the nine inning variety. Rickrode walked six batters in the first two frames, allowing a run on a Bailey Rapson single with two on in the first.
They found a way to rally back in the top of the second, taking advantage of a throwing error at third with a runner on first to set the stage for freshman Alma Partenza. With the sacks juiced and two away, she roped a hard grounder that the Spring Grove third baseman slapped down, but could not palm to throw for an RBI single to tie it.
The next six scoreless frames were anything but dull.
With two on and two outs in the fourth, Funkhouser came up with the first of her two almighty touches, diving up the middle to snag a searing liner by cleanup Hannah Shaffer.
“That’s the second game she’s done that in a row,” Matt Rickrode said. “That’s a game-changer. She always has her head in the game and she makes the play that needs to be made.”
In the sixth, Stanley’s stunts began. With one away and a runner on second, Bryn Sporer sent a dagger to left that the outfielder couldn’t quite pinch.
The Rockets got aggressive on the bases when the ball hit the ground, but Stanley quickly recovered and threw to third. The ball got there on time, but the tag appeared to be late. The umpire called the runner out, much to the chagrin of the Rockets.
“The girl had to come back around to make the tag,” Spring Grove coach Mark Hull said. “She was already in in that point in time. That’s the umpire’s call.”
Still tied 1-1 in the seventh, Stanley shined again.
Rapson led off with her third single of the game, sending a liner to center. Hailey Kessinger walked and a sacrifice bunt by Krysten Moore put two in scoring position with two away.
Matt Rickrode took a walk to the pitcher’s circle and called all nine players to the meeting. When it was over, the players fanned out and waited until Chloe Sullivan sailed a shot to left on a full count.
Two steps back, then a short leap was just all it took for Stanley to snare the liner out of the sky.
“We pulled the outfield in and we were just thanking God that she picked that spot to stand,” Matt Rickrode said. “Ten feet either way, that ball is rolling to the fence and this game is over. It was amazing on her part.”
On third, Rapson’s first inclination had been to head home. She was forced back to the bag to tag up and was unable to score.
“Any normal time that drops, but their outfield was in,” Hull said. “They made some plays.”
The Squirettes weren’t out of the trouble yet. The nine-hitter, Siera Guinard, came to the plate with a sacrifice bunt, a smooth line out to center and the single on her stat sheet.
Her stroke had been a little too sweet, Matt Rickrode decided, opting to put her on so Maggie could face the leadoff hitter, Olivia Lillich.
The unorthodox move paid off as Maggie induced a pop up. Even that didn’t go smoothly, as Funkhouser was forced to hurl herself toward the center of the infield to make the grab.
“I was not very happy with dad, but he told me she had three hits,” Maggie said of the decision to face Lillich over Guinard. “I just needed more confidence and it built up from that point.”
Except for Ernst, the Squirette offense went quiet through the middle innings. In the ninth, they finally broke loose.
Maria Schussler got the rally started when she reached on an error with one out. Partenza put the go-ahead run on second, working a walk on a full count. A single to right by Lauren Little loaded the bases, but the Squirettes held the runner at third, knowing there were two chances for a sac fly.
Funkhouser fought to a full count, but went down swinging, putting all the pressure on Ernst. The Squirettes’ three-hitter finished off her masterpiece when she sent a 1-0 pitch on a line to left-center, driving home two.
“I was really nervous, but I just told myself, ‘you’ve already had four hits and that’s still good. Just go up and do what you can for the team,’” Ernst said. “I’m really proud of my team. It’s really amazing.”
The Squirettes clinched the YAIAA 4 last Wednesday with a victory over Fairfield, but the Green Knights had worked around Ernst until the game was already decided. She was satisfied to get the chance to swing away in the conference championships. She went 6-for-7 over the two-day tournament.
“My coach told us that she wasn’t going to give us anything down the middle, so I was looking for the curves and screws,” Ernst said. “I don’t think I’ve done this well in a game yet this season.”
Rickrode returned to the circle with the lead, and though she gave up a leadoff single to Moore, never showed her nerves. Three batters later she recorded her fourth strikeout of the game and the Squirettes were celebrating in front of the dugout.
By game’s end, Rickrode threw 192 pitches and allowed 18 total baserunners. The Squirettes admitted they worked around Hannah Gartrell, who ended up with a walk and a single. With the exception of Guinard’s intentional walk, the rest of the free passes were unplanned.
But when the walls were closing in, Rickrode found an escape.
“Maggie goes out and throws 150 pitches every game, it seems like,” Matt Rickrode said. “She never complains about an arm ailment or anything. What more can you ask. She’s awesome.”
Ernst loves catching her cousin, even when control is an issue, she said.
“I do anything I can to make her smile,” she said. “When her curves aren’t working, we just bring it inside and don’t move out as far. That last inning, her curves were right on point and that’s all we needed. She’s clutch. That’s when we needed it the most.”
Heading into the field the inning after she ripped the game’s first RBI single, Spring Grove’s center fielder, Rapson, received a compliment from the umpire for her hit.
“I’ve got to get my name in the newspaper somehow,” she replied.
Standing on first base later after another single, she hooted and hollered loudly when her coach was struck by a sharply hit foul ball, drawing a hearty chuckle from the audience.
The energetic senior also got a strong reaction from the crowd when she was celebrated for gathering the 100th hit of her career in the fifth.
Between the lines and off the field, the Rockets wouldn’t be the same without her.
“Bailey is one of those kids, sometimes she can drive you crazy, but she works so hard,” Hull said. “You hate to see the girl go and you’ll miss her and all the ups and downs that come with it. I’m very proud of her. She’s almost like my kid.”