In the most critical moment, in the most critical of games, Molly O’Connell was at her absolute best.
O’Connell belted a two-out, walk-off, two-run double on an 0-2 count in the bottom of the seventh inning to give the New London its first state softball title, an exhilarating 2-1 victory over defending state champion Baldwin-Woodville in the WIAA Division 2 state championship game at Goodman Diamond.
And, folks, she’s just a freshman.
“I just thought, ‘I’m going to hit it this time. It’s going to be my first hit of the tournament and I’m going to do it.’ ” O’Connell said.
It was a defining moment in the young outfielder’s career. O’Connell was told to keep the faith after being dropped to the No. 8 position in the lineup by co-coaches Tony Porath and Laura Turner following New London’s state semifinal win over Monroe on Thursday.
The move was in an effort to lessen the pressure on their freshman but also to give more at-bats for New London leading hitters Alanna Beyer and Shelby Sommer. It would also allow the lineup to be more flexible in using O’Connell’s fine bunting skills.
Still, Porath said he had second thoughts during the game.
“I told her it was to take a little pressure off her and so that she could use her speed and also her bunting,” he said. “Then later in the game, I was thinking ‘OK, maybe we shouldn’t have done that.’ Did it work? (Baldwin-Woodville’s) defense is good.”
Porath paused then laughed.
“And then she got the hit and it was like ‘Good move!’ “
Unheralded New London faced a tall order in the defending state champs. Baldwin-Woodville (21-4) entered the game not having lost against a Wisconsin team and pummeled its semifinal opponent, New Berlin West, 9-0 on Thursday.
The Blackhawks scored a run in the first inning but New London starter Shelby Sommer refused to be rattled.
She rebounded to finish with three strikeouts while also working her way out a few jams late in the game.
“We just needed to come together,” Sommer said. “It’s kind of tough for a pitcher to calm down a team when you’re on the mound, but you yourself have to be really calm or else things could really go downhill.
“As a pitcher, it does get nerve-wracking. But you have to believe in yourself and your team and just do your best. If it goes your way, great. If it doesn’t, you have to come out hard in the next inning.”
Things didn’t go New London’s way on offense for most of the game against Baldwin-Woodville starter Abby Klopp. The junior hurler struck out seven and didn’t allow a runner past second until the pivotal seventh inning.
With two outs, freshman second baseman Abby Elsholtz drew a walk and then advanced to third on a single up the middle from Kansas Walbruck.
Elsholtz overran third and was nearly thrown out trying to return, but the umpire called her safe.
“I wanted her to score and I knew we wouldn’t have a lot of opportunities to score on this team,” Bulldogs’ co-coach Laura Turner said. “We had an opportunity to advance a runner and all of a sudden (Baldwin-Woodville) came up ready to throw and I saw the determination on their face and I was like ‘All right, I need you on the base. We can trust our hitters.’
“It was a very quick decision and it was my call. The reason why it was even close was because it was my call. Abby did everything she was supposed to do.”
It was a key play that kept the inning alive just long enough for O’Connell to come through with her heroics and punctuate the Bulldogs’ season mantra of never giving up.
“Actually, I prefer it this way,” Turner admitted. “Because now the younger players know that you never give up. You never quit. You don’t have to be undefeated all season to be in the championship game or win the state championship.
“I think it’s a great testament to the girls and a great testament to the program that if you always battle and you support each other and you can get through anything.”
WP: Shelby Sommer. LP: Abby Klopp. Leading hitters: Alanna Beyer NL 2×2; Molly O’Connell NL 2B, 2 RBI.
— Ricardo Arguello: 920-993-1000, ext. 558, or email@example.com; On Twitter @PCRicardo