By MIKE SHAFFER
For the Star Beacon
Lake Catholic softball coach Dale Colagross had the option of a potential battle with rival Notre-Dame Cathedral Latin, the top-seeded team in the Division II district tournament, or a potential matchup with third-seeded Jefferson in a sectional chaampionship game in the other half of the bracket.
Colagross chose to avoid the Lions for as long as possible. What he couldn’t avoid, though, were the Jefferson Falcons and the devastating changeup of hurler Alyssa Irons.
Irons shut down the fourth-seeded Cougars (15-7), holding them to one run on just three hits as Jefferson captured a sectional championship with a 4-1 win Thursday at JAGS Complex.
“Her changeup is nasty,” Colagross said. “All game long, we kept biting on that sucker pitch. All year long, we’ve been telling the girls not to swing at a changeup unless there are two strikes. We swung and missed on so many first-pitch strikes. We got killed with it.”
“I love that pitch,” Irons said breaking into a smile. “It’s definitely my go-to pitch.”
Jefferson catcher Ariann Barile agreed.
“It’s her strongest pitch, by far,” the senior said. “She brought it today and I’m so proud of her.”
The freshman right-hander struck out seven to win her eighth game of the year.
“That’s the Alyssa Irons we’ve seen from Day 1,” Jefferson coach Don McCormack said. “She has not changed her demeanor or approach all year. For a freshman to have that kind of poise and focus and talent is just amazing.
“You can’t look for her changeup when she’s throwing a 59 to 60 mph fastball. The key is, she can throw that pitch at any time in the count. She can be down three and one and throw that pitch for a strike.”
The win gives Jefferson (20-4) an outright league championship and sectional title in the same season for the first time since 1992.
“What it means is I’m very happy for these girls,” McCormack said. “They have worked so hard since the first day of practice on Feb. 25. Our goal this year has not been to win games around here.
“Our goal has been to make noise and re-establish Jefferson as a quality softball program. To get to 20 wins and win a sectional title is very meaningful to my players and I’m very happy for them.”
The Jefferson offense did its job, as well. After a leadoff single by Sarah Busch, Irons smoked a pitch off the third base bag and into left field for a double. Sam Hamski followed with an RBI single to give the Falcons a 1-0 lead. On the hit by Hamski, Jessica Becker (running for Irons) was thrown out at third base.
Two batters later, Hamski was thrown out at home plate to end the inning, forcing the Falcons to settle for just one run.
“That was coaching,” McCormack said. “That’s on me. I told the girls after the game, if I don’t cost the team two runs we’re breathing a little easier. Give them credit, they picked up their rookie coach and made him not look as bad as he feels about it.”
Jefferson added another run in the fourth.
Freshman Kaycee Fusco doubled to start the inning. Lake Catholic hurler Jenna Bayer got the next two hitters on a strikeout and a groundball to first.
Sophomore Bailey Beckwith then collected her second hit of the game by smashing a line drive back up the middle to put the Falcons up, 2-0.
Meanwhile, Irons kept the Cougars off the scoreboard by sitting down nine of the 10 hitters she faced in the middle three innings.
In the home half of the fifth, Barile gave the Falcons a little more breathing room. After Irons started the inning with her second double of the game, Colagross took out his starter and brought Nicole Novotny in to pitch.
Novotny, who defeated Edgewood on Wednesday, appeared to have the threat ended as she induced popups from the first two hitters she faced. Barile, however, greeted her with a smash over the left-field fence for a two run homer, giving the Falcons a commanding 4-0 lead.
The home run was her fourth of the season.
“I’ve played against Nicole and I’ve played with her on travel teams,” Barile said. “She’s a quality pitcher, she throws hard. I knew if I made contact, it would go somewhere. I kept my head down and was able to drive it.”
The Cougars scored their lone run in the sixth inning. Novotny tripled and came home on a ground ball by Liz Kent. They then brought the tying run to the plate in the seventh.
With runners at first and third, Irons got Melissa Marjak to hit a groundball to the shortstop. Sophomore McKenzie Wilber fielded the ball and fired it to first to end the game.
The win sets up a rematch, of sorts, for Jefferson. The Falcons will play Geneva, which beat them, 3-2, earlier in the spring, in a district semifinal Wednesday at the JAGS Complex.
“We have something to prove,” McCormack said. “Eleshia Pitcher has a great team. Amy Pitcher is a fine pitcher. They’re not two-time defending PAC champs for nothing. We have great respect and admiration for them.
“Right now, they’re the better team because they beat us. We’re fortunate to have another shot at them.”
Shaffer is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.