By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
There’s a good reason coaches make their players practice certain skills over and over again. A trio of Jefferson softball players is a pretty good example of why following the Falcons’ 2-1 10-inning victory over Conneaut at Skippon Park on Friday.
With Jefferson up a run with one out in the top of the 10th, the Spartans were threatening to extend the contest or even win it with Lexi Zappitelli standing on third and Lydia Coccitto at second. Emily Lower bounced a ball back to Jefferson hurler Alyssa Irons, who turned to look Zappitelli back to the bag at third before throwing to first baseman Bailey Beckwith for the out at first.
The moment Irons let go of the ball, Zappitelli sprinted for the plate.
“We practice looking the runners back,” Irons said. “I knew once I made the throw she was definitely going to go. After I made the throw to first, all I could do was guide Bailey to make the throw home.”
Beckwith, already anticipating that maneuver, came off the bag and fired to catcher Ariann Barile, who applied the tag just in time to give the Falcons (15-4) the victory.
“I knew she was to going to run,” Beckwith said. “I almost pulled my foot (before getting the out at first). I anticipated what was going to happen. We’ve practiced that a lot. The throw (home) could have been lower, but I had faith Ariann would block the plate enough to get her.”
“I know Conneaut is aggressive and they’re a good team,” Barile said. “I knew she would try and score. Bailey and I have done that so many times that once she got the ball, I knew the ball was coming to me. I knew the throw was going to be there. It was a bang-bang play.
“We’d worked on the hook slide in practice, so I knew there was a scenario where a runner would try it. (Zappitelli) is a good player, a smart player, and I knew she would try and get in any way she could. It felt like I’d graduated already (while waiting for the call to be made). It felt like the longest time.”
It was a text-book play with all parties, including Zappitelli, doing everything just the way it’s drawn up. It was, however, indicative of how the afternoon went for the Spartans (12-4).
“That’s a credit to Coach (Will) Irons, Coach (Bill) Beckwith and Coach (Don) Wilber,” Jefferson coach Don McCormack said. “They’ve worked tirelessly on exactly that situation. What we try to do is get them to freeze the runner, make her stop, which is tough for the runner to do and still beat two good throws.
“Alyssa froze her and made a good throw to Bailey. Bailey came off the bag and made a good throw to Ariann, who held her ground, caught the ball with two hands like she’s been trained to do, made the tag and we go home a winner.”
“Irons made a good play,” Conneaut coach Nick Armeni said. “She looked Lexi back and made a good throw to first. Beckwith made a good throw home.
“Lexi did the right thing. She stopped then took off. She didn’t hesitate. She went for it. Again, they outexecuted us.”
The Falcons used a pair of well-placed singles to take the lead in the top of the 10th.
Freshman outfielder Sam Hamski bounced a ball to the hole on the left side, where Conneaut shortstop Lydia Coccitto made the back-hand stop and fired for first. Hamski, however, beat the throw to the bag in a bang-bang play for the single. McKenzie Wilber sacrificed her over. After a flyout, fellow freshman Kaycee Fusco singled to right, just over first baseman Angie Zappitelli’s head. Hamski legged it all the way in from second.
“(Coach McCormack) told me to shorten my swing,” Fusco said. “She was pitching me outside and I knew I had to hit it. I wanted to hit it. It felt good when I hit it. I knew Sam was going to score.”
“She was kind of letting the environment affect her,” McCormack said. “They called a timeout and I took a second to talk to her. I said to act like she was hitting off a tee. I told her to take care of making contact and let Lexi’s speed take care of the distance.
“I tried to get her to keep it simple and hoped something would happen. To come through in that situation is tremendous.”
Jefferson had finally managed to break through after leaving 15 runners on base.
“It felt like we were blowing up a balloon the whole game but we just couldn’t get it to pop,” McCormack said. “We left 15 runners on base and had 10 hits against a quality pitcher like Lexi and to have just one run is deflating, but to the girls’ credit, they didn’t hang their heads. They kept the same approach, kept (their swings short), saw it and hit it.
“Eventually, it paid off.”
“Lexi made a good pitch,” Armenni said. “Fusco stuck her bat out and punched it over Angie’s head. It was an outside pitch and she punched it over Angie’s head. They earned it. Emily, who probably has the best arm on the team, made a great throw, it was just up the line a little bit.”
Irons (5-2) worked all 10 innings for the victory.
“Alyssa is unflappable,” McCormack said. “That’s not taught. It’s not coached. She’s born with it. The last two days, she’s faced two good teams. She hasn’t flinched. It was a tough loss (3-2 to Geneva) that she was saddled with (Thursday). We let her down, didn’t have her back.
“I say this in a figurative sense, she’s a bulldog on the mound. Nothing fazes her, not the score, not the situation, not the hitter.”
The freshman allowed one earned run on seven hits, fanned 11 and walked four.
“I really was able to keep them off balance by changing speeds and locations,” Irons said. “My outside pitches worked really good today.”
Zappitelli (9-3) took the loss. She allowed just two earned runs on 10 hits, struck out eight, walked none and hit a batter.
“She’s pitched great all week,” Armeni said. “This was her third game in a row. It’s been tough on her and we’re not supporting her really well. It seems every pitch she makes is a pressure pitch. We just can’t get any distance (between us and the other team).”
Hamski and Fusco had teamed up in the second to give Jefferson a 1-0 advantage.
Hamski led off with a single to left and moved up on a bunt single by Wilber, who was trying to sacrifice. Barile, also trying to sacrifice, loaded the bases with another bunt single. Fusco popped a ball up behind the bag at first, but the ball was misplayed and fell in fair territory. Hamski scored.
Conneaut broke through in the fourth.
Angie Zappitelli lined a one-out single to left-center, but was erased when Coccitto reached on a fielder’s choice. Lower roped a double into center and Coccitto scored all the way from first to know the score, 1-1.
The Falcons were sure to score again in the fifth, but Conneaut second baseman Dani Heinonen decided it was not to be.
With Emily Smock on second and Beckwith at first, Irons hit a rocket to the right-field side of second. Heinonen stabbed the ball as it was about to go by and her momentum carried her toward the bag. Seeing Smock off base, she made a lunge for the base, but came up short. Not to be denied, she crawled the remaining feet for the double play.
“I just saw her hit it and got a good jump on it,” Heinonen said. “I saw Emily off second and dove.”
“That was the best play I’ve seen all year,” Armeni said. “Only a great athlete can make that play. Everybody in the park thought that was going to be a double. She dove and even bear crawled over to second. That was the best play I’ve seen.”
The Spartans loaded the bags in the home half of the inning, but Irons induced a ground ball to get out of it.
Jefferson loaded the bases in the sixth, but two ground balls led to a pair of force outs at the plate. In the bottom of the inning, Coccitto walked, stole second and moved to third on a ground ball-out. She was stranded there on a popup to Irons.
The Falcons stranded runners at second in the seventh and eighth. The Spartans went 1-2-3 in the seventh, but threatened in the eighth.
Angie Zappitelli reached on a one-out error and was erased a sacrifice attempt gone wrong for Coccitto. Lower walked to move Coccitto to second, but Tori Simek’s fly ball to deep right was snagged by Hamski.
Beckwith tripled to left-center with one out in the ninth, but a popup and a strikeout ended the inning. The Spartans also stranded a runner at third after leadoff hitter Alyssa Chadwick reached on a two-out bunt single. A popup sent the game to the 10th.
“Aside from Poland, that’s as good a team as we have faced, or will face, if it should happen that we should get out of the district,” McCormack said. “I would love for us to play them in the district final. I think that’s a game everyone would love to see. I know I would.”
“It hurts,” Armeni said. “The girls are upset. They knew this was a big game and it would be all over the paper. They were up for it. That’s what they just talked about. We had so many chances to get a hit and didn’t. Jefferson came out and executed offensively and defensively.
“I credit my girls for battling through. They didn’t give up. Jefferson was by far the better team. I’m proud of them for fighting. They didn’t give in. But Jefferson outexecuted us in every phase of the game.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.