Crusader softball team takes down Wildcats with Strickland, early rush of runs

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit head coach Jim Speciale celebrates with Sammie Petitt as she rounds third base for a solo homer against Westview.

The crew of Crusader softball players who presumably took the field for the last time on their home turf on Wednesday wasn't the same cast that was a strike away from beating Westview in April.

Jesuit wasn't even the same team that lost to the Wildcats in a 1-0 eight-inning heartbreaker a month later. This Crusader squad that faced Westview in the winner-take-all second round of the 6A playoffs was tougher mentally, perceptive and prepared physically. Their upperclassmen such as Jenny Marnin and Olivia Strickland have been through the postseason wars before with the battle scars to prove it.

It's a noble group with a lot of pride and a state championship attached to their name. One last loss to Westview wasn't for them.

Jesuit jumped out to a 4-0 first inning lead by applying patience at the plate and then let Strickland silence Westview the rest of the way. In the end, with "Sweet Caroline" blasting through the public address system, the Crusaders got the Wildcat monkey off their backs, beating Westview 6-1 at Jesuit High School.

No. 8 Jesuit faces No. 1 Tualatin on Friday at 5 p.m. at Tualatin High School in the 6A quarters.

"They got us twice in Metro, but we beat them when it mattered," Strickland said. "As a team, we definitely have a little more grit going into games. We don't let up in the last inning when we're up one with two outs. It's hard to beat a team three times and I think we proved that tonight."

"We left our heart out on that field for that game and this was the perfect game to do it," Marnin said. "You lose one (playoff) game and you're done. You can't go back from that, no matter what. We won the game that counted."

The end came faster than Westview would have anticipated or preferred. There were tears and bear hugs after head coach Ronda McKenzie broke the team's last huddle of the year, but Westview wasn't despondent as so many teams are when their last rites are read by the playoff grim reaper. The 6A runner-up Wildcats won their sixth straight Metro League title, splitting the crown with Jesuit and Glencoe and won 20 games for the fifth consecutive season. The seniors on the Wildcat roster such as Ananya Koneti, Reece Martin, Kelsey Day and Valeti Fifita, so crucial to Westview's success, so instrumental in the league titles and state championship game appearances, had nothing to hang their heads about. The senior class helped Westview retain its elite status as one of the state's best programs all the while bringing a joy and passion to a sport that at times has chased others away.

"Hopefully we leave behind a love for the game," Koneti said. "I hope our growth and love for this game, the program and being here because we want to be here, giving it our all, are things we're remembered for."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview freshman pitcher Julia Jordan shares a light moment with senior Ananya Koneti against Jesuit.

Jesuit's first inning uproar arose in large part to some helpful intel provided by a 5A powerhouse and a contrary plan of attack at the plate. Westview freshman Julia Jordan got the start in the circle, this after the southpaw flummoxed and fooled the Crusaders for six innings in the foes' 1-0 regular season classic on May 4. Back then, Jesuit had little success against the freshman with a filthy array of off-speed stuff and spell-binding spin. Marnin said Jordan really "messed" with Jesuit's minds in their prior matchups. But in the Crusader coaching staff consulted with Hillsboro, who blitzed Jordan and the Wildcats in a 13-3 non-league endowment game a week earlier. The Spartans told Jesuit to let Jordan come to them, to let the freshman feel the weight of playoff pressure early and not swing at anything unless it was dead-red over the fat half of the dish. Self-restraint was stressed all over Jesuit's pregame scouting report.

The plot, a far cry from the free-wheeling, fastball-hunting Crusaders, paid off big-time. Sammie Petitt walked and Marnin and May Williams were hit by back-to-back pitches with nobody out. Then, Reyan Tuck walked on a full count with the bags full to walk in the first run of the day, 1-0. Jesuit freshman Madison Mayhew hit a heater to Westview shortstop Emma Antich who gloved the ball and threw home from her knees, but the heave went wide of the plate and Marnin scored to make it 2-0. Annalisa Williamson blooped a single over the drawn-in Wildcat infield that scored Williams and extended the lead to 3-0. Then miscommunication behind home plate and the Wildcat infield allowed Lucy Bell to swipe second and let Mayhew score 4-0.

"We're not a team that gives in easily," Strickland said. "They got us in the past, but once you get in the playoffs everything starts fresh. It doesn't matter what happened before. These five (playoff) games are what matter most. We know what it takes to go deep in the playoffs and you have to have a lot of heart."

The sympathy for Jordan's rough start was widespread on both sides. Just a freshman with a world of promise before her the southpaw was beaten by a tight strike zone, a stoical experienced lineup and a slight case of the expected early game jitters. Jordan's time to carry Westview on an extended playoff run will come in time, just not this season.

"She's going to be really dangerous for years to come and I'm glad I'm not going to be here for that," Strickland said with a smile. "I remember when I was a freshman and struggled against Barlow in the second round. You grow from that sort of thing. Mentally, that's going to come for her. We focused on keeping the game simple, staying in our zone, not swinging at pitches out of the zone. We made her throw to us, not at us."

"It's hard being a freshman going into a game like that," Marnin said. "Even if you're not a pitcher, it's still frightening to be out there. I give her a lot of credit. She threw one hell of a game. She held her ground."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit senior pitcher Olivia Strickland catches a pop-up just in front of shortstop Jenny Marnin against Westview.

The rest of the way Jordan was excellent, allowing a home run to Petitt in the fifth and a Marnin RBI single in the sixth.

"The score wasn't representative of how we played," Koneti said. "I know coming in as a freshman pitching in a playoff game is nerve-wracking. I don't blame (Jordan) at all. She battled back and shut them down after (the first inning). At the end of the day, it's a game and we're here to compete and have fun. I'm really proud of how we played. Other than that one inning, it was a 2-1 game."

But, Strickland was zoned in, retiring the first 12 batters she faced before allowing a Kelsey Day single in the fifth. Westview scored once an Antich RBI single, but nothing was going to fluster Strickland on this day, even a Wildcat team well known for its heroic comebacks and storybook postseason legends.

"The thing I admire most about (Strickland) is she keeps her cool," Koneti said. "We're one of the most obnoxious teams in the state. My ears are still ringing from the dugout, but we could not frazzle her. She's composed and relaxed no matter what the situation is. She fights for it. I respect her for that."

There would be no eleventh-hour retort, no last-gasp dash in the seventh. Strickland made sure of it, yielding just two hits all game with 11 strikeouts. Even when it felt a Wildcat counter was in the cards in the fifth, the Crusader ace cut it off.

"I didn't think it was over until the last pitch," Koneti said. "I wasn't sad. I wasn't thinking about losing until we were high-fiving them (after the game). I didn't think we were done. That's our team. We come back and fight until the end and never give up. But you're not always going to have a two-out, two-strike homer over the fence. You can't count on that every game. I think it was up to us this time to not depend on that comeback. It doesn't always happen. Magic can't be expected. It can't be relied on."

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