The high stakes didn't make Willow Creek's knees shake.
The ESPN cameras and extra media attention following their every move didn't force Team Oregon into an angst-riddled depth.
Alpenrose Stadium is Willow Creek's house. It has been for years now. The sacred venue is where they honed their craft and became state champions at an early age. It's a place they can glean both confidence and comfort.
So, in the Little League Softball World Series quarterfinals against Team East, Oregon was at ease. And before a national audience tuned in on ESPN2, Willow Creek turned in a 2-0 gem over Team East, getting a shutout from star ace pitcher Bridgette Boling and a key RBI by Addilyn Gates in the fifth inning to advance to the LLSWS semifinals on Tuesday.
"It's a dream," Bridgette Boling said with a smile. "It's unreal. It doesn't seem true, I can't put it into words. But our team didn't really think about anything. This is our homefield. There was nothing different than any other game we've played here."
The threat of elimination didn't faze Willow Creek in the least. This was their game to win, their stage to shine on, their platform to prove what Oregon youth softball, particularly in District Four, is all about.
"The girls are just so excited," Willow Creek head coach Erin Boling said. "A lot of the other kids from our Little League are coming out and seeing the excitement and want to be a part of this too. It's brought a lot of great publicity to softball and our league. We couldn't be any happier."
Team Oregon, representing District Four, will get a rematch with Southeast in the semis at 4 p.m. on Tuesday on ESPN2 back at Alpenrose. Southeast beat Oregon 7-1 in the final game of Pool B pool play action on Aug. 10, a contest where Willow Creek was far from full strength. Injuries and illness forced Erin Boling to mix and match a lineup that wasn't exactly ideal. Willow Creek still cobbled together six hits against Southeast star lefty ace Campbell Schaen (three from Bridgette Boling, two from Gates) but only scratched one run across. However, Bridgette Boling fully believes Oregon's normal batting order will close the gap between the two semifinalists with a chance to play in the LLSWS title hanging in the balance.
"We need to be on the bats, and if we are (Southeast) will go down," Bridgette Boling said. "We can hit off (Schaen), it's just a matter of hitting the ball to places where the fielders aren't."
The day after the loss to Southeast, Erin Boling gave her tired team a much-needed reprieve from the World Series whirlwind. She told them to go home, pet their dog or cat if they had one, take a nap in their own bed, and recoup from what's been a wild, stressful and busy week. After staying in the LLSWS sanctioned hotel for the past five days or so, it was a chance to reacclimate themselves to routine and unwind a bit before the build-up of one-and-done play.
Willow Creek reconvened on Sunday night and came back on Monday morning rejuvenated with a distinctive pep in its step. Bridgette Boling was simply tremendous in the circle, baiting the overzealous East players into wild swings with her rise ball that never ran out of heat. Her teammates were on their toes defensively, bouncing around, making the plays as they came. Willow Creek didn't commit an error all game-long. And though East pitcher Alizabeth Schuler was nails, Oregon stayed locked in at the plate and remained mentally keen on the bags.
Bridgette Boling and Schuler swapped zeroes through the top half of the fourth inning. Then, in the bottom half of the frame, Bridgette Boling singled to left to lead things off. Willow Creek catcher and cleanup hitter Sofia Cherry moved her to second with a fielder's choice. With Gianna Micciche at the plate, Boling took off for third. East's catcher sprung up and fired to the bag, but the heave went wide into foul territory. And with no dead ball rule in effect, Boling recovered, got to her feet with a frantic escape and scored to give Oregon a 1-0 lead.
"There wasn't a chance that I was going to get caught," Bridgette Boling said. "I knew I could be safe at third and that my team needed me for that run. I just instinctively went."
"(Bridgette Boling) reads the game really well," Erin Boling said. "She's just a phenomenal base runner. She sees if people are watching her or not and she takes advantage. We always talk (to the team) about taking the extra 60 (feet) on the bases and she did that and we were able to capitalize. It was a huge, huge play."
Bridgette Boling was unbeatable in all aspects. The southpaw went 2-for-3 at the plate, stole that critical base, had the wherewithal to score, and surrendered zero runs on four hits over six innings, striking out ten in the circle. The left-hander has proven she's not just one of the best pitchers in this tournament, but overall players as well, a star capable of impacting the game in an assortment of ways.
In the bottom of the fifth, Willow Creek shortstop Kaiya Suyama came off the bench in her first at-bat of the game and singled to center. Oregon rightfielder Lucia Regnier moved pinch-runner Sophia Groshong over to second with a sacrifice bunt. Then Gates got the job done, socking a single to center that scored a hoofing Groshong to give Willow Creek a critical insurance run, 2-0.
"Addi has really been seeing the ball well and I'm just so proud of her," Erin Boling said. "She really came up clutch."
Bridgette Boling retired the first two hitters of the sixth, but the subsequent South Williamsport hitter squared up a fastball and sent it past the Oregon outfield. The sequence normally would have scored the runner from first as Willow Creek tried to come up with the ball in the outfield grass. But for whatever reason, East's lead runner hesitated and held up rounding the bag at second. She stopped a few steps off of second, went back toward the base, then realizing her teammate who just hit the would-be double was right on her heels. The East runner, out of necessity, went full bore toward third and nearly beat the throw. Yet, the crazy mixup gave a shocked Oregon squad enough time to relay the ball to Willow Creek third baseman Gaby Bauer, who much to her surprise, had a beat and a half to tag her out to end the game in stellar fashion.
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