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Fitzwater’s early two-run single holds up as Liberty softball wins region opener, 2-1

Saturday, May. 28 | By Fred Hodge
Makaela Kestner stole three bases during Liberty's 2-1 win on Friday. Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Coaches usually are happy to have a high degree of familiarity with an opponent. But at this stage of the 2016 softball season, Liberty coach Ryan Washington and her Eagles were happy to entertain a group of strangers from Amherst County near Lynchburg.

The Lancers came to Bealeton Friday in the opening round of the Group 4A West Region playoffs. The result was a 2-1 Liberty win on Ally Fitzwater's two-run single in the first inning.

The win sends the Eagles into a 6 p.m. Monday quarterfinal contest at perennial powerhouse Woodgrove. The Wolverines were the 2015 state runners-up after earning the state championship in 2014 and 2012 and a 2013 silver medal.

Liberty's win over Amherst was a breath of fresh air for the Eagle program after a brief late-season downturn, coach Washington said.

“It was monotonous there at the end [of the regular season] with the rains,” Washington began. ”The rains didn't allow us to see many different teams outside of conference. When we got back from the rain storms, it was three, four conference games in a row. Then right into the tournament."

Liberty, now 14-5 overall, dropped a 1-0 game to Fauquier in the penultimate regular-season game and lost to Kettle Run, 1-0, in the conference tournament semifinals. “Everyone was predictable. Everybody had seen everyone else two, three times in a month's span,” she said of knowing each others foibles. “Nice to play against someone else than a Conference 22 team.”

“I think we needed to play someone new. Someone we had never seen before. That helped us, I think,” sophomore winning pitcher Makaela Kestner agreed.

Liberty tallied the only runs it needed against Amherst in the first inning and held on to reach the region quarterfinal. With one out, Kestner, recently voted the Conference 22 Player of the Year, sent a flare into right field for a single, and Lizzie Waln was hit by a pitch. Morgan Hatcher laid down a sacrifice bunt to move both runners, with Fitzwater up next.

Washington would rather eschew the “home run” swing, espousing discipline and a shorter swing at the plate, especially with runners in scoring position. On a 3-2 pitch, Fitzwater sent a soft line drive at the second baseman, who turned to retreat toward the outfield grass. The ball fell off her glove to score Kestner and Waln for the only Liberty runs.

Kestner later admitted the play helped bolster her confidence level in two ways—grabbing the early lead and and scoring herself. “It helped me to calm down a little bit. It helped me think 'We could win this game,'" she said, pleased to have a bit of space when pitching instead of the recent white-knuckle battles.

“Every pitch is crucial. You just can't zone out,” she said of late-game scoreless situations. “You have got to stay in the game.”

“Obviously, scoring first and/or early gives you the confidence in what you can do. It releases a lot of pressure,” Washington said.“We scored, but we also realized the importance of 'we need more runs.'”

Liberty tried to cushion the lead in the fourth when Kortney Leazer sent a long, high one-out blasr to the base of the left field fence for a double. A strikeout was the second out before Taeylor Mallum sent a drive into right. The ball was curling toward the line but Lancer Asia Lee sprinted to make the catch.

“Taeylor hit a shot but they tracked it down,” Washington said of the contact.

Waln and Hatcher recorded back-to-back singles in the fifth with one out before the Eagles came away empty handed. Leazer waked to open the sixth before pinch hitter Rachel Allen's sacrifice bunt, but weak line drive and infield pop up ended the inning.

Amherst seemingly squandered a third-inning threat when Lee was a safe on a two-base throwing error as the lead off batter. Another error allowed her to advance to third with one out. Amherst's Madison Hudson sent a loping two-hopper to Frazier, but Lancer coach Christy Mays held Lee at third while Frazier threw to first for the second out. Another grounder ended the inning.

Amherst broke through in the top of the seventh when Kristi Wayland tripled into the right field corner, scoring when Hockman booted a ground ball up the middle.

Liberty ended the game with a double play on a one-hop ball back to Kestner. She wheeled and threw to Hatcher covering second and on to Fitzwater at first.

"It was nice to see somebody else,” Washington said again, but the unfamiliarity also meant little in the way of a formal game plan. “I was really nervous about us making in game adjustments because we are real young,” the Liberty coach admitted, “That was a new team. Didn't know anything about any of the players.
“But we came out on top.”

Hatcher also had a hit for the winners, while Kestner held the Lancers to four hits and struck out five. Amherst's Cooper struck eight.

The Amherst season concluded at 13-9.

The Eagles, now 14-5, will travel to Woodgrove Monday to see who will advance to the June 1 semifinals, probably at defending state champion Carroll County. “They're good,” Washington said of the 19-1 Wolverines whose lone loss came in splitting a regular-season doubleheader against Turner Ashby.

“We do have some common opponents,” she added, hoping to glean some information during the holiday weekend It's Memorial day weekend. Just want [the Eagles] to rest easy and go from there. Come in and be ready to go."

“I know they are good. You just have to go out and play your best.” Kestner said of the next test.

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