MAY 14, BLAZER FIELD—
Blair softball flexed its muscles again last night, beating the Gaithersburg Trojans 7-2 to advance to the Region Finals of the Maryland State softball tournament. Softball's offensive firepower reared its head again against the Trojans and senior pitcher Annie Denenberg threw a complete game. For the first time in 30 years, the Blazers will be playing for the 4A West title; Blair will face Damascus Friday.
Softball's breakthrough in the playoffs is a product of a team that has been building for 2007 for several years. All nine Blair starters are seniors, seven of whom were full-time starters as juniors. "It's the best team we've ever had because of our experience," said head coach Louis Hoelman. "Everyone has been through this before."
Despite a 32-4 record in the past two seasons including playoffs, softball never reached a region title game before this year. According to Hoelman, the team's senior leaders have made a late-season push to do damage in the playoffs, and their determination has provided the team with a confidence boost. "The seniors know this is their last chance, so it creates a positive sense of urgency," he said.
Denenberg stayed out of trouble against the Trojans, scattering eight hits, allowing just two runs and ringing up five strikeouts in her second complete game playoff victory in three days.
The Blazers got the scoring going in the second inning. Senior Anna Szapiro launched a triple to the warning track in center to lead off the inning, and senior Michelle Linford drove her in on a ground out. Senior Dani McClay then hit a two-out double to deep center. McClay scored on an error by the Trojans' first basemen after senior Liz Scroggs hit a weak groundball to the pitcher. Blair ended the inning up 2-0.
In the top of the third, Blair's defense came alive, making a spectacular play in the field to hold Gaithersburg scoreless. After Denenberg struck out the first batter of the inning looking, she gave up what looked like an extra base hit to right-center field. But senior Allison Rubin fired a strike to Szapiro at shortstop, who relayed the ball to senior Juliet Garlow at third, who tagged the bewildered Trojan runner out at the bag. First baseman McClay made a sensational catch to end the inning. The Blazers tacked on another run in the bottom of the fourth on another error at first base by Gaithersburg. Leading 3-0 in the fifth, Blair escaped a scoring threat by the Trojans on a lunging catch by senior catcher Claire Lieberman off a foul ball behind the plate.
Gaithersburg came charging back in the sixth, though, smacking two straight singles off Denenberg. With runners at first and second, the Trojan batter ripped a double down the third base line that appeared to bounce foul. Two runs scored on the hit, and Blair's lead was cut to just one run. Denenberg responded by striking out the next two hitters, and taking the Blazers into the dugout with their lead intact, 3-2.
Szapiro, who went 3-3 (single, double, triple), led off the bottom half of the inning with a double. Linford drove in Szapiro with a double to the wall, her second RBI of the night and fifth in the past two games. After Denenberg laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Linford over to third, McClay doubled to right center, scoring Linford and giving Blair a 5-2 lead.
After pinch-hitter Diane Chase was walked, senior Megan Harmison reached first on an infield single to third. With the bases juiced, Garlow blooped a double to shallow right, driving in two runs. The Blazers scored five runs on five hits in the inning, jumping out to a dominating 7-2 advantage going into the seventh inning.
The Trojans offered little offense in the seventh, and the Blazers celebrated their biggest accomplishment to date after recording the final out of the game. Hoelman said his team's ability to deal with adversity helped them keep composure after Gaithersburg cut the lead to just one run, and respond with a five-run inning of their own. "The difference between this year's matchup with Gaithersburg [in the playoffs] was that we wanted it more and were more confident," he added.
The Blazers head into Friday's Region Final riding a wave of offensive output. Although Blair is known for its creative slap-hitting style, a recent power surge has helped build leads for Denenberg and the defense to play with and protect. The Blazers have outscored their opponents 16-3 in the last two games, and the middle of the order is, according to Hoelman, "absolutely crushing the ball."
"One reason we are so good this year is that one through nine, we hit the ball, and hit it hard—even one through 11, because we have great pinch hitters, too," said Hoelman.
Friday's game pits #2-seeded Blair against #1-seeded Damascus, who beat the Blazers during the regular season and are heavily favored to take the region. Said Hoelman, "Damascus beat us in the regular season, so we would be excited to avenge that loss." UPDATE: Softball's 4A West Region Final game is Friday at 4 p.m. at Damascus. Admission is $5.