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Apollos lose to Sheldon in semifinal pitcher's duel, but reflect on outstanding year

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior Abby Wingo hit two doubles in the Class 6A semis against Sheldon.

The story of the Sunset softball team's season can't be written without team dinners at Grace Kimball's house, dance parties at sleepovers and a diabolical game called "Psyche".

High school sports are about bonds, friendships and creating life-long memories that go beyond the wins and losses on the field. And the Apollos were about as close-knit as a team could be, one that could playfully roast each other on "Psyche" without the fear of hurting feelings, one that could sit around the Kimball dinner table and playfully talk smack or dance to whatever was on Mikaela Byrnes' phone. There were ample reasons for Sunset's wild success this year. The Apollos won 24 games, took the Metro League title, reached the Class 6A semifinals and exceeded everyone's expectations except their own.

But it was that off-the-field chemistry that was Sunset's driving force. As the Apollos navigated the new frontier of Metro dominance and postseason fruitfulness, their ability to enjoy the journey getting there together but still be fully present, forward-thinking and hungry for the mountaintop's riches set Sunset apart.

"We all had trust in each other," Kimball said. "We're out there, having fun and enjoying the game. If you're not enjoying it, then you're not going to perform to your best because you have to play in the moment and enjoy every single second you have with those teammates out there."

The Apollos' path to a state championship game appearance fell one game short as Sunset lost to Sheldon 2-0 in the 6A semis at Sunset High School on May 28. Yet this was a club that proved you don't need overwhelming talent to go deep in the postseason. Surely it hopes to have stars such as Kimball, Byrnes and Abby Wingo. But the players' ability to put the team before themselves, to not take themselves so seriously and invest in their teammates on and off the diamond were equally as pivotal as any practice, any game.

"It's not all about the skills that every player has on the field," Kimball said. "If you took apart our team one by one, we could be less talented than the team lined up across from us, but the fact we played together as a team is what made us better. That's so important and so underrated. The chemistry behind playing together is what's going to pull you through and get you through those tough games. That's what we try and make sure everyone understands."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset junior Grace Kimball struck out eight hitters and allowed just two runs against Sheldon.

Sheldon pitcher Camille Leach was outstanding in the circle for the Irish, holding the normally reliable Apollo offense to just two hits. Kimball was game for the pitcher's duel, allowing six hits, punching out eight and walking just one. The difference came in the top of the third with two outs when Kelsi Sorenson and Jordan Henderson both had RBI singles to go up 2-0. Wingo bagged two doubles, one to start the fourth and the second with one out in the sixth. Yet the Seton Hall signee was stranded in both instances. Sunset's best chance to strike occurred in the fifth. First baseman Kayla Kemp walked, then Mei Dach did her job and put down a sacrifice bunt to move pinch-runner Grace Russell over into scoring position. Then Maddy Terhune slapped a ball off the Irish's drawn-in infield and reached on the error. Sunset's subsequent hitter tried a surprise suicide squeeze on the first pitch that rolled just foul. And on the second pitch, the Apollos bunted a ball that was popped up and caught by Sheldon's third baseman. With both runners moving on contact, unaware the ball has been caught, the Irish third baseman went to first for the huge momentum-halting double play.

"Only team one team in the state gets to end their season on a win and ending on a loss like that is tough," Kimball said. "I don't think we played our game the whole way through. We had moments where we were strong, but there were some lapses where we got nervous or a little anxious. But overall I can't be anything but happy about this season."

Byrnes, Kimball, fellow junior Kate Fogle, seniors Terhune and Kendra Knapp all played together for Willow Creek Little League as young tykes growing up around the Cedar Mill area. Knapp and Wingo were day one starters from the moment they slipped on a Sunset jersey and stayed to see the program turn the corner for the better. Both Byrnes and Kimball said the Apollos' goal in the postseason was simply playing as long as they could, that way they could hang out with the seniors and see them every day. They never abandoned ship and saw that devotion pay off in the form of a semifinal run that'll help push the program forward.

"We finally proved ourselves," Kimball said. "Coming into the season people said we weren't going to be ranked. They underestimated us in league, saying other teams were going to take the title again. But this year was a big breakthrough point for us. We had crazy improvement from last year and that only sets the bar higher for next year."

This was a team that came together as kids, matured as ballplayers collectively and helped put Sunset softball back on the map.

"Taking a step back and looking at the whole season there's a lot to be proud with this team growing so much over the last two years," Byrnes said.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset pinch runner Grace Russell prepares to take off against Sheldon in the Class 6A semis.


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