An ugly first inning in the 4A IHSAA softball state championship game Saturday night turned into a thing of beauty for the Center Grove Trojans.
Center Grove (28-3) came away with its first title trophy since 2015 and a record seventh championship by precariously hanging onto the only run scored in the game in the first inning against Leo.
With two outs, CG’s freshman Sydney McConnell, a courtesy runner for Abby Herbst who reached first on a walk, stole second and scored on Lexi Fair’s smash that bounced off the glove of rightfielder Haley Hines.
Then the Trojans tried to return the favor by committing two errors in the bottom of the first.
With two outs, Lions’ slick fielding shortstop Kennedy Shade reached first on a fielding error on a routine ground ball. The next batter, pitcher Ashley Miller, hit a grounder but the short throw to first base was misplayed. First-baseman Alexis Rudd alertly threw to second and the relay throw to third enabled Lex Warner to tag Shade for the third out.
From then on, it was a pitcher’s duel between Herbst, the leading candidate for Miss Softball, and Miller. Herbst won by allowing only three singles, striking out 11 and limiting only one Lion to reach second base.
When the last batter grounded out, it touched of a long-awaited celebration for the Trojans (28-3), especially seniors Herbst, Piper Belden, Tess Lawyer-Smith and Addie Homeier who was sidelined with a torn ACL.
“We’ve been working hard for four years,” Belden said. “We thought last year would be our year, but we had to wait for a dream to come true.”
Belden, a University of Indianapolis signee, led off the sixth inning to launch a scoring threat. The next two batters grounded out that enabled the fleet Trojan to reach third. The threat ended on a spectacular diving catch of a foul ball by Hines. Earlier she was robbed of an extra-base hit when leffielder Spahiev made an over-the-shoulder catch.
Herbst struck out four batters and allowed only one hit in the final two innings. The precise-throwing senior mixed her pitches expertly with only one hit and one fly-out reaching the outfield. The University of Wisconsin signee
“This (championship) is insanely satisfying,” Herbst said. “With the career I’ve had, this was the way I wanted it to end for me and my teammates.”
Herbst finished with a 23-3 record, while Miller (13-1) gave up only here hits and an unearned run in her first loss.
Belden chimed in and said, “She (Herbst) is incredible. “She’s been a great leader and a great teammate. She killed it tonight.”
The CG program has won a record 23 sectional, 17 regional, seven semistate and seven state championships – all IHSAA records.
Center Grove entered the title game Saturday with confidence but were in some disbelief that their run scored in the first inning was the difference.
“I kept telling the girls after every inning that we have to score more runs,” first-year CG coach Alyssa Coleman said. “Abby kept getting better with every pitch, but we seem to thrive under pressure.”
Coleman also made history Saturday. She is the first softball coach in IHSAA history to win back-to-back state championships with different teams. Last year, the former Butler University player guided Speedway to the 2A championship.
Succeeding iconic coach Russ Milligan, Coleman and the Trojans fashioned a 22-3 regular season, but there were question marks going into their own sectional against rival foes. They defeated Franklin Central 2-0 and won the sectional title with an 11-inning 1-0 win against Franklin.
“We had the worst (sectional) draw of any team in the state,” Herbst recalled. “We came together and jelled then. From that game on, we had the belief that we could win any game – and we did.”
In their playoff games, the Trojans allowed only one run behind a solid defense and Herbst’s tremendous pitching. And they finally held the state championship trophy high for hundreds of fans who made the journey from northwestern Johnson County to Bittinger Stadium at Purdue University.