The La Grande Tigers softball team has a roster full of high-caliber upperclassmen.
But on Friday, it was a freshman who came through with the biggest hit of the season to date for the defending state champions.
Kinzy Bowen hit a two-out RBI triple in the bottom of the sixth inning to drive in Lexee Gomes with the eventual winning run, and the Tigers held off a stiff challenge by Sweet Home for a 3-1 win in the quarterfinals for the 4A state playoffs at Sam Marcum Field in La Grande.
“That was a great game,” La Grande head coach Woody Wright said. “It’s the kind of game you’re looking for going into the semifinals.”
Bowen said her previous at-bats “weren’t the best” — she had struck out and walked — when she stepped to the plate with the score tied in the bottom of the sixth inning. Her message to herself was simple.
“I just thought, ‘I’m going to hit this, I’m going to hit this,’ and (I) hit it,” she said.
Bowen lifted a pitch to the fence in right field to easily score Gomes from first for the go-ahead run, then scored from third when Jayde Wiggins reached on an error for a two-run cushion.
That margin was all junior pitcher Allie Brock needed.
“When we got those hits we really took all the momentum back and you could tell they (Sweet Home) were flat on the other side,” Brock said. “It was a huge relief for the whole team and huge relief for me coming out in the seventh to close the door.”
The seventh was arguably Brock’s best inning, getting a popup and a pair of strikeouts to finish off the Huskies and help send the Tigers to a third straight semifinal appearance.
The seventh inning, though, was a stark contrast to the sixth. Sweet Home, which had scored the tying run in the fifth when Marissa Kurtz scored on a fielder’s choice, opened the sixth with back-to-back singles from Sunhee Bitter and Graci Zanona to put pressure on the Tigers.
“I just told myself I needed to focus on every pitch, focus on one pitch at a time and stay composed,” Brock said of her mindset in the tight situation.
Brock responded with a strikeout, forced a lineout to Bowen in right, then collected another strikeout to get out of the inning unscathed.
“That’s (a) kind of situation she hasn’t really been challenged in much this year. It goes to show she can bear down and get the job done,” Wright said.
In the home half of the sixth, Gomes — who also had a second-inning RBI single for the Tigers’ only other run to that point — poked a two-out seeing-eye single into left field to jumpstart a La Grande offense that had been held in check by Sweet Home pitchers Savannah Hutchins and Ashtyn Walker.
“I knew I had to get on base, and when I did I looked over at (first base coach) Pete (Caldwell) and said, ‘I’m getting home, whether (Bowen’s) hitting the ball (or another way),’” Gomes said. “Sure enough, she knocked one out to the fence. It worked out perfect.”
Wright said it wasn’t the first time he’s seen the senior come through with a hit in a key situation.
“I’ve coached Lexee for many years, (and) they call her ‘clutch’ for a reason,” he said. “Lexee always finds a way to get on. When you need it, Lexee’s there. (Then) Kinzy stepped up and did her job. The underclassmen have done that all year.”
The Tigers managed seven hits but struggled for much of the game to adjust to what Wright said was slower pitching than they expected from Hutchins and Walker.
The Huskies threw an added wrinkle in, pitching Hutchins, a left-hander, for the first two innings, then changing to Walker for two innings and back to Hutchins.
Although it was a move the Tigers had anticipated, it may have contributed to the delay in the offensive breakout.
“We were out on our front (foot) more than I would like, but we started to make an adjustment. When they went back to the lefty I knew (we) would start getting on her,” Wright said.
While the win means a third consecutive semifinal appearance, it is the first for Bowen and the other freshmen who have contributed to the team’s success this spring.
“It’s so amazing to be able to live this and do this, especially with these girls,” Bowen said.
Gomes had a different focus.
“It’s time to lock down and focus and remember who we are playing for and the target we have on our backs,” she said. “We have to look past that (and) play our hardest. From here on out, it’s all mental. We know we have the ability (to win).”
The Tigers (22-1 overall) host Junction City at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday with a trip to the championship in Eugene on the line.
Eagles’ season ends with loss in 3A state quarterfinals
The Wallowa Valley Eagles baseball team collected just one hit as it saw its season end with a 7-1 road loss to the Pleasant Hill Billies in the quarterfinals of the 3A state playoffs Friday.
The Eagles’ lone run came without a hit in the sixth inning when Gus Ramsden walked and eventually came around to score on a wild pitch.
David Salim had the Eagles’ only hit with a single in the seventh inning.
The Billies scored three times in the third inning to add to an early lead and go ahead 4-0, then scored two more runs in the fifth for a six-run margin.
Wallowa Valley finishes the season with an overall record of 16-8.