HERMISTON — Considered underdogs by most people, a dream season continues for the Hermiston Lady Bulldogs (18-12) who will play for the Oregon 5A softball title Saturday at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
The Dawgs, guided by first-year coach Kylee Nichols, earned their first trip to the finals since 2002, following a thrilling 5-4 eight-inning home win over the Churchill Lancers (22-6) in a state semifinal Tuesday.
“The girls did everything they could down to the last out and I can’t describe how proud I am of them,” Nichols said. “This absolutely exceeds all our expectations and they deserve to go to the finals. I think that everyone thought we were underdogs except us. We knew we could compete with any team in the state.”
Hermiston, ranked ninth, will play the No. 2-ranked Sandy Pioneers (26-1), which beat No. 3 West Albany 3-1 in the other semifinal.
Hermiston senior centerfielder Jennifer Paxton (4-for-4, 3 RBI) smashed the game-winning walkoff single in the bottom of the eighth inning to help lift the Dawgs to the victory.
Senior starting pitcher Paige Long (11 strikeouts) had a spectacular game in the circle with three walks and nine hits allowed while pitching a complete game.
“I just never get worried in any at-bat, even with two strikes, because I just feel like I can always get a hit,” Paxton said. “I just wanted to help my team pull out a win and I got the biggest hit of my career. It doesn’t get any better than this and I probably won’t even be able to sleep tonight.”
Hermiston, runnerup to Pendleton in the Columbia River Conference standings, never trailed in the contest, which was scoreless the first two innings. The Dawgs capitalized on four key Lancer mistakes (fielding error, dropped third strike, walk, hit batter) to gain the upper hand in the third.
Freshman Jamie Hinkley reached base on an error and stole second to get into scoring position. Paxton reached base on a dropped third strike and Long followed when she drew a walk from Lancer pitcher Taylor Potter (three strikeouts, three walks, three hit batters), loading the bases. Sophomore left fielder Abi Drotzmann earned an RBI when she was hit by a Potter pitch, scoring Hinkley for a 1-0 Dawgs advantage.
Two batters later, sophomore Ashley Moser (pinch runner for Long) scored when senior second baseman Mykel Liebe (1-for-4, RBI) drilled a sharp grounder to left field, giving Hermiston a 2-0 edge after three.
After Churchill knotted it 2-2 in the top of the fourth, the Dawgs responded with a two out rally to regain the lead. Senior first baseman Mikaela Cain drew a leadoff walk and sprinted to second on Hinkley’s sacrifice bunt. Cain slid into third on catcher Allie Rude’s sacrifice groundout at first and then scored on Paxton’s RBI single for a 3-2 lead.
Churchill, the Midwestern Conference Champion from Eugene, again responded in the sixth, tying it 3-3 on Savannah Hitchkcock’s solo homer. The Dawgs came back in the bottom of the frame, highlighted by Paxton’s RBI triple. Rude, who reached base on a fielder’s choice, stole second and scored on Paxton’s deep fly to the 200-foot centerfield fence for a 4-3 Dawgs lead.
Churchill seemed to always answer and they did it again in the seventh, tying it on an Alex Parker homer. Long struck out two of the next four Lancers and it remained 4-4 after seven as Hermiston failed to score in the bottom of the frame, sending it to extra innings.
Churchill 000 201 10 - 4 9 2
Hermiston 002 101 01 - 5 8 2
Taylor Potter and Sophia Delap. Paige Long and Allie Rude. Highlights - Hermiston: Jennifer Paxton 4-4, 3B, 3 RBI; Mykel Liebe 1-4, RBI; Drotzmann RBI. Churchill: Savannah Hitchcock 2-4, 2B, HR, RBI; Danielle Duman 2-4, HR, RBI; Alex Parker 2-4, HR, RBI.