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Senior pitcher throws a shutout, Apollo bats come to life in 15-0 home victory

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior pitcher Sydney Rusin starred against Sherwood, throwing five strong shutout innings on Monday.

Four games into her senior season Sunset pitcher Sydney Rusin can already sense a sea change around the Apollo program.

Sunset is smashing the softball, scoring at least eight runs in three of its last four games. The defense has been vastly improved. Rusin is putting in work in the circle and handling more responsibility in the middle of the order as a hitter. Out of the gate, Sunset has won four straight including Monday's 14-0 triumph over Sherwood under the friendly sunny skies at Sunset High School. But if Rusin and her teammates have their way, the 4-0 start is just the beginning of something big.

"I think it's more of a mentality," Rusin said. "Everyone thinks we're this young, young team, but we're out here trying to show people who's boss. We're showing that we can play and that we know our stuff. I'm really proud of how far we've come already. We know what needs to get done and we know how to execute our roles."

Just in its second non-league game, the Bowmen are a bit further behind than most, especially considering Sherwood hasn't been able to practice much on its muddy dirt infield. Sherwood, like many teams in the state fighting the early spring elements, is still installing its personnel and feeling out which players can maximize their abilities both defensively and in the batting order.

"I want to see some girls find that fight in them so that every day when they come out to the field they put it all out there," Sherwood head coach Mikal Morris said. "I'd say I have 12 girls who are pretty even (talent-wise), so it's working with them to find it inside of themselves to push it every day. Sunset was a very aggressive team. All of them were solid hitters. I'd like to think they'll do well this year."

Sherwood relief pitcher Olivia Dirks came on in the third for the Bowmen trailing 7-0 but retired three of the first four batters she faced and kept Sunset off the scoreboard for an inning. Sunset's Kate Fogle was struck out by a perfectly placed Dirks rise ball that painted the outside corner in the fourth. And Dirks added three more strikeouts to her total the rest of the way

"She's a strong fighter and has a lot of desire in her," Morris said of Dirks. "She could be a good leader for us. I'm proud of her for coming into a hard situation and fighting through it."

Centerfielder Emily Knott played in the outfield for the first time on Monday. In the fifth Knott got an early beat on a hard-hit bally by Sunset's Kendra Knapp, backtracked toward the fence and nabbed the ball in deep center.

"We needed some speed out there and she became a leader for us quickly," Morris said.

Senior catcher Emily Watson whopped a hard-hit single to right in the top of the fifth and played a great game defensively behind the dish. Watson is one of just two seniors on the Bowmen squad.

"She's an amazing leader with awesome skills," Morris said of Watson. "She's always wanting to push the girls. She doesn't let any balls by her behind the plate. She's amazing to work with."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sherwood second baseman Ashley Peniuk hauls in a pop fly against Sunset in non-league action on Monday.

Rusin, was stellar in the circle against Sherwood, throwing five shutout innings with 13 strikeouts including two frames in which she struck out the side.

"I try to ignore the batter and just think of it as me and the catcher and the umpire," Rusin said. "Sometimes the strike zone is like a box of chocolates, you don't know what you're going to get, but you have to work with it. I got into a little bit of a groove, but I can't be too cocky about that. You never know what's going to happen."

Rusin, a right-handed thrower, but a left-handed hitter, also drove in four runs. The Apollos pounded 18 team total hits with five players bagging at least two base knocks on the afternoon. In the bottom of the second, Sunset junior Abby Wingo put down a perfect bunt down the third base side and legged out the infield single. Knapp, with runners on the corners, snapped the first pitch she saw down the third base line into the left-field corner that scored Grace Russell and Wingo, who blitzed around the bags and scored standing to extend Sunset's lead to 5-0. Rusin, hitting left-handed, sent a soaring fly ball to the gap in left-center to make it 6-0 with two outs. And Sunset freshman Lainey Weir kept the parade afloat, with a slapped RBI single to right that gave Rusin plenty of time to round second and score standing to extend the lead to 7-0.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Sunset softball team has started the non-league season 4-0 after beating Sherwood in five innings on Monday.

Rusin and Weir added RBI doubles in the fourth and Grace Kimball smacked an inside-the-park homer to give Sunset an 11-0 lead. Weir tacked on a two-run double single in the fifth. Wingo reached base in all four of her plate appearances.

"Being a senior and seeing more and more kids coming into the program and be able to hit is awesome," Rusin said. "We're producing this year."

Rusin, Wingo and Elli VanBrabant were elected Sunset's team captains before the year began. Rusin and VanBrabant are the only two seniors on the squad and they've been entrusted with showing their youthful teammates how to act and play at the varsity level. They've created an inclusive culture that welcomes underclassmen with open arms.

"It's a lot of responsibility, but it's a privilege, not a right," Rusin said. "The coaches saw I had that leadership role and that the team looks up to us. I try to make this team more of a family. Coming in as a freshman I was an outcast, the young one who had to pick up all of the gear after practice and after games. But as the years progressed, you have to take them in and treat them as family. Sunset's program is about togetherness and sisterhood."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sherwood starting pitcher Josie Reed throws a pitch against Sunset in non-league action on Monday.

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