Willow Creek nearly stuns Southeast, loses LLSWS semifinal battle
Willow Creek, take a bow.
The Team Oregon delegate not only represented their little league, District Four, its suburbs and home state as a whole with class, but it left a mark on the Little League Softball World Series that will be felt for years to come.
They weren't the ceremonious hostess gifted a berth just because they happened to be from District Four. Willow Creek was good enough to win it all, high-caliber all the way, a squad that punched its ticket to the LLSWS semifinals by going through a minefield of pool play opponents, four of which made up The Show's final four. Oregon was not the ritualistic party-giver here to show the world a good time. Willow Creek came to Alpenrose Stadium and owned it, playing an old school brand of pitching, defense and timely hitting that had fans and viewers back home on the edge of their seat.
Team Oregon was achingly close to not just a berth in the title bout, but a real shot at winning the LLSWS and all-time mortality. Ultimately, unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be.
Giving tournament favorite Southeast everything it could muster and then some, Willow Creek went into the bottom of the eighth trailing 3-1 but scored on a Gaby Bauer bloop single to pull within 3-2. Bauer moved to second on a fielder's choice. Yet with two outs, Willow Creek grounded out to second base, dropping the semifinal 3-2 in extras on Aug. 13, ending its hope of making the title game.
Still, what a road, what a ride it's been for a squad that surprised everybody but themselves with how well they played, how hard they competed.
"We were a bit of a sleeper pick," Willow Creek head coach Erin Boling said. "If we had come in and not won a game, it would've been disappointing because people wouldn't have seen what we're capable of. But even after this game, I think people saw what we're capable of."
Teams out of District Four don't normally make it this far. They might beat up on a few of the weaker teams and bow out before elimination play begins. But Willow Creek was different. Bridgette Boling put her fingerprints all over this tournament, carrying the pitching load, putting opponents in a vex, flummoxing some of the best hitters in the world from the circle. She was arguably the best all-around player at The Series as well, crushing the ball at the plate, running the bases like a high school senior, providing leadership. Bridgette Boling provided the fire, while Willow Creek's defense was the brimstone. Catcher Sofia Cherry turned the base paths into a no-fly zone with her laser right arm from behind the backstop, nabbing base stealer after base stealer. Second baseman Addilyn Gates stayed busy on the right side of the infield and was trustworthy and steady as they come up the middle. Outfielders Sophia Groshong, Lucia Regnier and Evyn Morriss all made huge catches in the outfield, some with runners on base, some in critical moments. Bauer was a defensive anchor both at third and when she took over for Cherry at catcher. The clutch hits came from everywhere. Gates and Boling were instrumental in helping Oregon knock out East in the quarters. Everybody on the roster chipped into the eleventh hour Canada comeback that assimilated Willow Creek to the world stage. Oregon was a play or two away from knocking off the defending LLWS champ Southwest in pool play. Kaiya Suyama drove the first run of the game against Southeast in the semis, facing a two-strike count, put together a textbook piece of hitting, sawing a hard-hit single to right that scored Sofia Santana to break the scoreless tie, 1-0. The shortstop led off the fifth with a double to right, peppering the opposite field just as she did in the second. Santana was Willow Creek's go-to pinch runner, a speed demon with spunk off the bench. Sierra McKenna and Kallan Bordwell-Gray provided stability in the order. McKenna and Suyama each bagged two hits against Southeast. Gianna Micciche and Libby Pemble made plays and kept the dugout live with positivity.
They performed under the white-hot spotlight of two ESPN broadcasts, complete with a full television crew, sideline reporters, color commentators, extra cameras, you name it. The stadium teemed with spectators and buzzed with anticipation. Every local media outlet wanted to be along for the ride. The players were interviewed and scrutinized on top of staying in a hotel together for 10 days in downtown Portland. They endured illness, injury and ill-fortune. There was a lot on their shoulders at just 12 years old, yet they handled the attention with preternatural poise. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and Willow Creek maximized it.
The loss stung and the tears were real in the game's aftermath as Willow Creek was consoled by family and friends in the Alpenrose parking lot. The championship game was close enough to touch. As competitors, Willow Creek wanted nothing more than a shot at immortal glory, to accomplish something an Oregon team has never done. The opportunity was out in front of them in plain sight, yet just beyond their reach. Willow Creek put the go-ahead on second base in the fifth with the game tied at 1-1, the winning run on second in the sixth and seventh at the same score and placed the tying run on second in the eighth. Though Willow Creek didn't hit at the same efficient clip this tournament as it customarily does, it found ways to tug and scratch at a Southeast team that was spooked.
"We scared (Southeast)," Erin Boling. "I don't think they were expecting as hard of a game as we gave them. I'm just proud of the girls for battling and battling and battling and continuing to keep up with them. And, I don't think they expected that."
Yet, when it came time to cash in that would be run, Oregon just couldn't cash in.
"We just couldn't get the last score around," Erin Boling said. "But it's been great pitching. It was a great battle that could've gone either way. I really thought we could've won that game. And, I still think we could've won that game."
Southeast put runners in scoring position with nobody out to begin the second, threatening to grab a big early edge in a no-doubt pitchers' duel between Bridgette Boling and Southeast ace Campbell Schean. But with the momentum ready to turn, Bridgette Boling caught Southeast's lead runner leaking toward home and gunned down the yellow and black cladded threat with a picturesque pickoff play to Bauer at third. Then, with a runner still on second, Boling struck out the next two hitters swinging. Crisis averted. No harm done. It was a defensive stand that symbolized Willow Creek's run to the semis. When caged, with seemingly no way out, Willow Creek found a way.
But Southeast is certainly no slouch. With one out and Schean on second Southeast flew out to right-center. The Willow Creek centerfielder and right fielder converged on each other, with the Oregon corner outfielder eventually making the catch for the second out. However, Schean tagged up at second. And as the Willow Creek outfield had a de facto conference in right discussing the near-collision, Schean screamed around third and scored the tying run before Oregon realized the mistake to even the contest 1-1.
Southeast put runners in scoring position with two outs, but Groshong, who made a sliding catch earlier in the inning, camped under a sky-high fly ball, battled the sun and caught the ball for the third out. Bordwell-Gray came in for Bridgette Boling in the seventh and continued to stem Southeast in the circle by retiring the side. In Little League, when the game wages past seven innings, teams begin putting a runner on second base to begin the frame. So, in the top of the eighth Schean singled to center with a runner on second but the ball was overthrown attempting to get the lead runner at third. The ball skipped away and the lead runner scored, giving Southeast a 2-1 lead. Later, with a runner on third, Southeast scored on a towering popup that landed on the edge of the infield dirt to make it 3-1. In the bottom of the eighth, Bridgette Boling (standing on second) stole third. Cherry struck out looking but Bauer brought Willow Creek within one with a bloop single to left that made it 3-2. McKenna moved Bauer to second with a fielder's choice. Morriss, the subsequent hitter made great contact, pulling a ball to right, but Southeast's second baseman scooted to her left and scooped an underhanded toss to first for the final out.
From coming together in the summer, winning D4, navigating a cutthroat Pool B that spawned both series finalists and advancing to the semis, Willow Creek was all the rage both in the softball community and in the Beaverton athletic circles at-large. Its impact will be felt for years to come. Younger players coming through the Willow Creek system, those in attendance or watching on television or keeping up to date on their phones will surely draw inspiration from this team that took the world by storm. Ditto from Oregon natives around the state who tuned into to get a look at the hometown crew. It would come as no surprise, be it next year, in two, three, four years from now that the next wave of Willow Creek Little Leaguers attributes their motivation to seeing Boling, Cherry and company up close and personal, proving a squad can arise from the Beaverton area and not just play but completely compete with the best players from around the globe. For now, this current crop will play under Erin Boling and her staff for another season of 14-and-under competition in the fall as eighth-graders. Then, it's onto the high school level where Westview head coach Ronda McKenzie and Sunset head coach Montana McNealy must be fired up to start pumping these blue-chip prospects into their respective pipelines. The future is bright, but whatever happens over the years, Erin Boling hopes they hold this summer near and dear to their hearts.
"I just hope that they have really good memories of this time," Erin Boling said. "Hopefully I'll be able to see these girls play in high school and beyond. I'm just so proud of them and hope they come away with happy memories. And I hope they keep playing because they love the game. That's why I love to coach them. They love the sport that I love. As long as they love it, I'll continue to coach them."
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