HARRISBURG — That Harrisburg won its first SIRR Ohio softball championship in 16 years doesn’t come as a surprise, not with two Division I signees and a freshman pitcher who showed on Friday that she’s capable of pitching beyond her years.
How the Bulldogs clinched the title, on the other hand, probably shocked just about everybody else at Township Park.
In a matchup of the conference’s two best teams, both built around offenses that combine for about 20 runs per game, Harrisburg lefthander Kerrigan Payne made a fourth inning tally stand up for a 1-0 decision over Murphysboro.
“I would have bet on a slugfest,” Bulldogs coach Red Stafford said. “They hit the ball extremely well and we hit the ball well. I would have figured on a 10-9 or even a 12-11 game. Both pitchers threw outstanding games. This was a good old-fashioned game.”
Payne and Shelby Harrison matched each other pitch-for-pitch over 83 minutes. An 8-3 winner over Harrisburg last month, Harrison was even better in the rematch, permitting just four hits and a run in six innings with two walks and two strikeouts.
But Payne rebounded from one of her two losses in style. She ceded only three hits and fanned three in an 81-pitch outing, walking none. Payne was so sharp that she ran up just two three-ball counts – one to the game’s second hitter and the other to the next-to-last batter.
“My defense helped me a lot,” she said. “My riser was working really well.”
Zooming through four innings in nine pitches or less, Payne had plenty in the tank when the Red Devils tried to rally in the seventh. Karlye Happold led off with a single to right, but was cut down at second when Payne fielded a bunt and forced her out.
The inning gained life when Taby Young’s potential double-play ball to second was booted by Hannah Reid. Stafford called his infield together for a meeting in the circle. Murphysboro coach Kim Brown convened her baserunners and Harrison, the batter, to discuss their strategy.
It all became superfluous two pitches later. Harrison’s hard-hit shot up the middle deflected off Payne and right to Reid. She tagged second and threw to first for the game-ending double play.
Payne raced to catcher Karsyn Davis and hugged her. A few minutes later, Bulldog players surrounded Stafford and emptied the contents of a water cooler over him.
Across the way, Brown mused about what might have been.
“Nine times out of 10, that ball gets through into center field,” she said. “And we probably tie the game.”
Harrisburg (23-3, 8-2) used two-out hitting to touch Harrison in the fourth. Payne laced a double down the right field line. Mya King pulled an 0-1 pitch off first base and into right field, enabling courtesy runner Riley Harrison to sprint home with the only run.
The Bulldogs stranded three runners at third base. They would have scored in the second, but shortstop Malorie Gill erased consecutive hits with great diving stops to her left that kept Riley Harrison glued to third.
Until the seventh, the Red Devils’ only real scoring chance came in the first when Shelby Cook led off with a single and Ellee Doerr reached on an error. But Payne calmly mowed down the 3-4-5 hitters, starting a stretch where she retired 14 in a row.
“We’d shut them down, come in here and get excited, and then she shut us down,” Brown said of Payne. “We were spot-on defensively and Harrison threw everything we wanted her to, but we just didn’t hit when we needed to.”
Because of that, Harrisburg was celebrating the first of what it hopes will be multiple titles.
“This group has just worked hard,” Stafford said. “They’re very competitive and they’ve had success at every level.”