Like any other coach, Philipsburg-Osceola’s Jim Gonder will take a home run wherever he can find it.
Wednesday against Bellwood-Antis he found one in a most unlikely place, the ninth spot in the batting order.
And it came off the bat of a most unlikely hitter, catcher Kylie Thal, who had spent most of the season in the lineup for defensive purposes while someone else hit for her.
But Wednesday with the Lady Mounties holding on to a one-run lead, Thal worked Bellwood-Antis pitcher Taylor Shildt for a full count, then smashed a homer over the fence in deep left field to give the Lady Mounties a three-run lead. The Lady Blue Devils scratched out a run in the sixth but fell, 5-3.
“It felt good, being able to contribute,’’ said Thal, clutching the game ball. “I’ve been working hard (at hitting) and my teammates have been so supportive. I owe them a lot for helping me. When I was running around the bases I was just thanking God for giving me the opportunity to play softball because it can all be over in the blink of an eye.’’
Thal’s work in practice caught Gonder’s attention and convinced him to give her another chance to hit.
“She’s been making better contact,’’ he said. “And we needed someone in that 9 spot who can put the ball in play. You feel good when you can turn the lineup over, especially our lineup.
“That home run was definitely the game right there. She actually has pretty good power for a little kid.’’
The Lady Blue Devils, who are only a few students above the cutoff for Class A according to coach Jim Payne, have moved up to Class AAA for the playoffs this year.
“We wanted some new competition,’’ he said. “We wanted to get into a more manageable tournament for the small numbers that we have. The triple-A tournament more closely mirrors the A tournament as far as the number of teams in it. The AA tournament is so big and demanding. We wanted to play a team of this quality to get ready for the districts. I’m glad we can compete with a team like that.’’
The Lady Blue Devils did more than that, they threw a scare into P-O as Shildt had the Lady Mounties under control, striking out five batters in the first three innings.
At the same time, Bellwood’s offense staked her to a 2-0 lead when she rapped a two-out single in the top of the third and Jacqueline Finn launched a mammoth homer over the scoreboard in center field.
“That’s Jackie,’’ Payne said. “She’s been doing everything for us from grades 9 through 12. It’s what we expect from her.’’
But in the bottom of the inning, the Bellwood-Antis defense sprung a leak with two outs when Megan Bainey’s fly to right was dropped, allowing her to reach second. McKenzie Burge doubled her home and Haylee Hayward singled Burge home to tie the score
“Unforced errors have been our nemesis all year,’’ Payne said. “I thought our pitcher pitched a good game. To give up two earned runs against a team like P-O, that’s a well-pitched game.’’
Shildt finished the day allowing six hits, walking one and striking out six.
P-O broke through against her in the fourth when Chelsey Henry led off with a double down the left field line. Jayde Burge singled her to third and Hannah Thompson’s fielder’s choice scored pinch runner Annie Kost. Then Thal got to a full count, fouled off a couple of pitches and then hit her first varsity homer, eliciting a roar from the P-O crowd.
“We got some quality hits today including that big hit from Kylie,’’ Gonder said. “Our seven, eight, nine hitters have been doing a good job at the bottom of the order, moving runners over, getting an RBI once in a while.
“I think that homer will help Kylie’s confidence. She seems more relaxed at the plate now. Sometimes I think catchers might have an advantage batting because they see more pitches. Even her last at-bat (a line-drive out to shortstop) impressed me. That pitcher (Shildt) was pretty crafty.’’