PICKERINGTON – Even after runs to a state championship, a state semifinal and three consecutive district titles, Licking Valley’s seniors still get nervous.
With one swing of the bat Wednesday at Pickerington North, four-year starter Carly Skeese helped put them more at ease — and closer to a fourth straight trip to the regional.
The shortstop slammed a solo home run over the right-centerfield fence leading off the fifth inning, giving the fourth-seeded Panthers the lead — and the lift —they needed in a 5-2 Division II district semifinal win against third-seeded Bishop Hartley. They’ll meet top-seeded Lakewood in a rubber match at 1 p.m. Saturday at Pickerington Central for the district title.
“I just told myself, ‘Go up there and don’t think about it,’ ” said Skeese, who slugged her fourth homer of the spring. “There’s always the chance this could be your last game. Now I know what the seniors last year were feeling.
“When we were down 2-1, everyone had their rally caps on and were excited in the dugout. It felt like the team really came together there.”
Injuries and graduation helped move Skeese, normally a No. 2 hitter, into the No. 3 hole, and she has responded with power.
“She has worked on keeping her hands up, and it’s given her a little more pop,” coach Mark Paxton said.
Kori Caughenbaugh’s RBI single scored Morgan Gossett and gave the Panthers (22-4) an early 1-0 edge, but two uncharacteristic Valley errors led to a 2-1 lead for the Hawks (22-7). Then, Kori Locke buckled down in the circle and Valley got locked in at the plate.
Payton Brownlee’s RBI bloop double scored Faith Tate in the fourth and tied it at 2-2. After Skeese’s homer in the fifth, Brownlee came through again with a two-out RBI single to make it 4-2.
“At first, it was pretty nerve-wracking,” Brownlee said. “They were such a good hitting and fielding team. After we got the nerves out, we finally started playing like we normally do. I just tried to get the bat on the ball, wait for my pitch.”
Paxton said Brownlee actually got a valuable year of experience under her belt in 2014 as a freshman.
“She’s starting to come on, and do what we knew she could do,” he said. “When Morgan Gossett was laying down that sacrifice bunt, I was telling Payton that she was going to get a two-out hit.”
Valley had two runners thrown at second early in the game, and also had one shot down at the plate in the sixth, but the team still pushed across a big insurance run on a two-out error. Hartley loaded the bases with one out in the seventh, but Locke recorded a strikeout and groundout to finish a six-hitter. She struck out nine and walked two.
“Our seniors have definitely been through it all, seen every situation,” Paxton said. “The Central District is a bear. In Division II especially, you have to come ready to play. Hats off to Hartley. They’re a nice team. We had opportunities to put more runs up, but they made plays. It’s too bad this was a district semifinal, with teams of this caliber.”
Now, a high-caliber Licking County League team will be going home Saturday. Valley has handed Lakewood its only loss to date.
“Any time you play Lakewood, it’s a huge game,” Paxton said. “The players will be ready, the fans will be ready. It will be a great atmosphere.”
For a video by Dave Weidig, go to NewarkAdvocate.com.