By David Dawson
SPRINGFIELD— For the third time in four years, the Summit High School softball team was standing on the doorstep of the state tournament.
And this time, the Lady Spartans found a way to barge in.
Traveling to Springfield on Friday night for the Class AAA sectionals, the Lady Spartans used a little bit of small ball to register the biggest win in program history — a 2-1, 10-inning victory over the Region 5-AAA champion Lady Jackets. The victory assured Summit of its first-ever state tournament berth.
Summit pitcher Elena Escobar crafted a dominating three-hitter, finishing with 12 strikeouts, and the Lady Spartans’ offense managed to make something out of nothing on two separate occasions, scoring both of their runs — one in the eighth inning and another in the 10th — without the ball leaving the infield. The meager offense proved to be enough for Summit to earn the gritty victory.
“Our blood, sweat and tears were left on this field tonight,” said Escobar, who locked up with Springfield’s Bri Asmondy in an epic pitcher’s duel. “I’m just so excited right now.”
The win was a monumental step for a Summit program that had come oh-so-close to making the state tournament in recent years. The Lady Spartans lost at sectionals in 2018 (falling to Henry County) and again in 2019 (losing to Springfield) before seeing the 2020 season canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But all of those negative memories were pushed aside on Friday night and were replaced by the image the Lady Spartans celebrating with a team hug in the pitcher’s circle.
“I’ve been dreaming of this moment since the day I became head coach at Summit,” said Lady Spartans coach Jenny Stevenson. “We’ve been fighting and scratching to get where we needed to be — and I am just so proud of these girls. This means the world to me.”
Senior Malia Scott’s perfectly-placed bunt in the eighth inning and freshman Ashlyn Easley’s heads-up base-running in the 10th were among the game’s most pivotal plays.
“Our motto is ‘refuse to lose’ — and I am really proud of how we kept fighting tonight,” said Easley, one of the rising stars in District 11-AAA. “And for this to be Summit’s first time to go to state, I am really proud to be a part of it.”
Escobar, who played at Independence before transferring to Summit last year, has delivered a large number of overpowering outings this season for the Lady Spartans. But Friday night was arguably her best.
After issuing a walk to the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the first, she retired 20 of the next 21 batters, surrendering only an infield single during that dominating stretch.
Escobar recorded at least one strikeout in every inning but the ninth. She punctuated her performance by ending the game with a strikeout in the 10th, when Springfield had the tying run at second and the winning run at first.
“With the way Elena was pitching tonight, I was super confident (in extra innings),” said Stevenson. “She was on fire. She was not to be denied. Once we scored (in the top of the 10th), I knew we were going to win because Elena was not going to give up another run.”
With Escobar and Springfield’s Asmondy both in command, the scoring opportunities were minimal for both teams through the first seven innings.
But Summit finally broke the scoreless tie in the top of the eighth, when Dixie Corbin reached base with an infield single, advanced on Claudette Runk’s sacrifice bunt, and scored from second on Scott’s ‘push-bunt’ that lofted past Springfield’s charging infielders and dropped in “no-man’s land” to the right of the pitching circle and rolled almost to second base before being tracked down.
In the bottom of the eighth, Springfield’s Sarah Nicholson delivered a two-out, two-strike RBI double to left field that tied the game at 1-1. The Summit dugout was frustrated during Nicholson’s at-bat when a pair of close-call pitches — that were potentially strike three — didn’t go in Escobar’s favor.
“That was tough, but it really shows the maturity of this team to be able to get over that and move on,” said Stevenson.
In the 10th, Easley opened the frame at second base by virtue of the international tie-breaker rule. She moved to third on a passed ball, and scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch, using a headfirst slide on a close play at the plate.
Springfield threatened to tie the game in the bottom of the 10th, when the Lady Jackets had runners at first and second with one out. But Escobar induced a fly ball to left field for the second out, and then recorded the game-ending strikeout.
“We had confidence in our defense and we had confidence in Elena,” said Summit shortstop Morgan Woodside. “We felt pretty good that she was going to keep them from scoring.”
The Summit defense delivered a stream of clutch plays throughout the game, including multiple highlight reels plays from Woodside and Corbin. Left fielder Abby O’Reilly also made a couple of game-changing plays, including alertly grabbing a ball in foul territory after it popped out of Woodside’s glove for the final out of the seventh inning.
“Our defense played the game of their lives,” said Stevenson. “And I think tonight showed what we’re about. We fight and we do whatever it takes. I really feel like that is the culture we have developed. To be headed to state feels amazing.”