Appearing in the first state title game in program history, the Hermiston Bulldogs saw their dream of a championship were vanquished just four batters into the game Saturday.
No. 2-ranked Sandy scored the only run it would need on a sacrifice fly in the top of the first, beating Hermiston 1-0 to win the OSAA Class 5A state title at Oregon State’s softball complex.
“These girls never quit and that’s been their attitude all season, which is how we got here, and I’m extremely proud of them,” Hermiston coach Kylee Nichols said.
The loss gives the Bulldogs (18-13) the highest finish in program history, culminating a surprising run by Hermiston and its first-year head coach.
"I feel so proud of my team, because nobody ever thought we would be here," said Jennifer Paxton, whose game-winning RBI in a 5-4 semifinal win over No. 4 ranked Churchill on Tuesday helped propel Hermiston to the final. "Winning the championship would've been icing on the cake. We hit the ball hard, but it always went to their outfielders. If one of those drops a little to the left or to the right, then we might've had a better chance to win."
Sandy (27-1) scored the lone run on a sacrifice fly by Rachel Rutledge with one out in the first, and piticher Sammie Byron made it stand up. Hermiston managed just three hits on the night. Kylee Andreason was 2-for-3 with a double, while Paige Long was 1-for-2.
Long, who will play collegiately for the College of Idaho, was equally as good in the circle for Hermiston, allowing four hits and striking out six.
"We played a good game, but I have to give Sandy credit, because they're a very good team," she said. "At the beginning of the year, we had hoped to make it to the state championship game and we succeeded in doing that."
Hermiston had its chances, as Long hit a one-out single in the fourth. Pinch-runner Ashley Moser stole second, but the Bulldogs couldn’t get the hit to tie the game.
In the fifth, Andreason doubled down the left-field line leading off. Two batters later, with Andreason on third, freshman Jamie Hinkley hit a ground ball to third, appearing to score the tying run.
But after a conference, the umpires ruled the ball foul. Byron then struck out Hinkley to end the threat.
"It was such an amazing atmosphere playing in the finals and I really enjoyed it," Long said. "I'm really proud of my team, we definitely stepped up our performance level and we had a great season."
In the bottom of the seventh, Andreason hit a two-out single, but was stranded at first, much to the chagrin of the Hermiston faithful.
"It was such a close game and I wanted to win so badly," Andreason said. "I felt confident that I wouldn't be the last batter out and I was really focused on getting a hit. I'm so proud of my team for having such a great season."
It marked the third consecutive year that a Columbia River Conference team reached the finals. Pendleton, the 2012 champion, also reached the title game in 2011. Hermiston was runnerup to 2013 CRC champion Pendleton this year. It was the fourth consecutive year that Hermiston advanced to the state playoffs and it was the best season since 2002 when the Bulldogs reached the semifinals.
"I knew it would be a close game that would probably come down to one run and that's exactly the way it went," Nichols said. "I couldn't be more proud of our seniors (Cain, Paxton, Long, Liebe, Melina Rodriguez, Katelynn Warner), whose dedication, hard work and commitment helped set the tone for the team. As a first-year coach, I didn't really know what to expect. The seniors helped set a new tradition for Hermiston softball."