By David Kapitan
AUSTIN – The Van Lady Vandals were a team on a mission in 2014, setting their sights on the program’s first ever-state championship title. Over the course of the non-district and district slates, and the first six rounds of the playoffs, Van rolled to an impressive 31-5-1 record to set up a showdown with the 39-2 La Grange Lady Leopards in the 3A State Final on May 31.
The high-octane Lady Vandal offense, which exploded for 15 runs in a State Semifinal win over Snyder on May 29, couldn’t find its rhythm against La Grange ace Marissa Zoch in the state title game. The Lady Leopards built up an early 6-0 lead in the game, eventually weathering a late rally for a 7-3 win.
Van, the away team, took an aggressive approach at the plate in the first inning against Zoch, swinging early and often. Leadoff batter Hallee Carter started the inning with a fly out to right, followed by an Ashlin Lovett strikeout. First baseman Kylee Moore became the first Lady Vandal batter to reach base hitting a sharp grounder to short. La Grange’s Alyssa Angel mishandled the ball, leaving Moore on base with Nicole Gandy stepping up. Moore managed to get to second on a passed ball, but Gandy popped out to end the inning.
Senior lefty Autumn McKinney got the starting nod for the Lady Vandals, facing an offense that generated four runs in a Semifinal win over Huffman Hargrave. The Lady Leopard offense was much sharper in its game against Van, getting a looping double out of leadoff batter Blake-Ann Fritch to start its afternoon.
The next batter, second baseman Briana Angel, was retired on a nice play by Van shortstop Ashlin Lovett in short left field. The third batter of the inning drew a walk, setting up a two on, one out situation. McKinney bounced back to strike out cleanup hitter Hatti Moore.
La Grange third baseman Kristy Bertsch came to the plate, delivering the first big blow of the game on a sharp hit liner to deep center. The ball carried over the head of Van centerfielder Hallee Carter, who nearly made a spectacular catch. The ball rolled all the way to the wall, with Bertsch clearing the bases on an inside the park homerun to give La Grange a 3-0 lead. Carter was injured on the play, but stayed in after a brief delay. McKinney ended the inning with another strikeout.
The Lady Vandal offense continued to struggle in the top of the second, going 1-2-3 on a strikeout, ground out and pop out. La Grange followed a similar script in the bottom of the second, going down in order on a strikeout, pop out and ground out.
Outfielder Devri Cotton nearly beat out a slow hit chopper to start the third inning, but La Grange second baseman Briana Angel made a strong throw to edge her by a step. The next two batters also went down in order, leaving the Lady Vandals hitless through three innings of play.
The Lady Leopards extended their advantage to 5-0 in the bottom of the third inning, scoring two runs courtesy of a bunt single, walk, illegal pitch, an RBI groundout and sac bunt. McKinney and the Lady Vandal defense minimized the damage from there, ending the inning on a fly ball to short right center field.
The Lady Vandals seemed to generate some momentum in the top of the fourth. After a fly out to centerfield, Kylee Moore ripped a sharp single to centerfield for the first Van hit of the afternoon. That momentum would be short lived, however. Nicole Gandy hit a soft chopper to first baseman Riley Fisbeck, who fielded the ball, touched first base for the second out of the inning, and then threw a bullet to second to record an out on Moore.
Van nearly dodged trouble in the bottom of the inning, but a costly miscue would lead to the sixth La Grange run of the afternoon. Hannah Gerecke began the inning with a single through the Van infield. The second batter, Madison Becka, attempted a sacrifice bunt but Lady Vandal Nicole Gandy made a heads up play, catching the ball in air after charging from her third base position and firing a strike to first to double up Gerecke.
Van was nearly out of the inning, but La Grange’s Elizabeth Read reached base on the only Lady Vandal error of the afternoon. Read stole second base, and then scored moments later on an RBI single to left by Fritch for the 6-0 La Grange advantage.
Van continued to hang tough, putting together its best offensive inning of the game in the top of the fifth. Haleigh Moore drew a leadoff walk and, after a strikeout, took second base on a pickoff attempt. Moore advanced to third on a Sierra Nichols single.
Zoch got Devri Cotton to pop out on a 3-0 count to second base, bringing ninth place hitter Jordain Castillo to the plate.
Castillo delivered the first Lady Vandal run of the game on a single to cut the La Grange lead to 6-1.
Hallee Carter pulled Van even closer, driving a double to left to score both Nichols and Castillo. The inning ended on a groundout, leaving Van in a 6-3 deficit.
La Grange scored what would be the final run of the game in the bottom of the fifth inning on a solo home run by catcher Hatti Moore to centerfield.
The Lady Vandals couldn’t catch a break over the course of the game’s final two innings. Van recorded two out singles in both the sixth and seventh innings, but Zoch kept the Lady Vandals from scoring to close out the 7-3 win.
Zoch finishes her season with a perfect 31-0 record overall. Media members named La Grange third baseman Kristy Bertsch as the game’s MVP.
Van’s Halle Carter, Jordain Castillo and Kylee Moore, all juniors, were all named to the 3A State All-Tournament Team. The Lady Vandals graduated four players, pitchers Autumn McKinney and Nicole Gandy, catcher Haleigh Moore and shortstop Ashlin Lovett in a brief ceremony following the game.