At its heart, softball is about the confrontation between pitcher and hitter.
Oshkosh North senior pitcher Sydney Supple and Bradford senior shortstop Sydney Strelow will have plenty of confrontations in future years in the Big Ten, as Supple is headed to Northwestern and Strelow is going to Minnesota.
But, boy, did they have a thrilling confrontation in a WIAA Division-1 State Tournament semifinal Friday night at Goodman Diamond in Madison.
Supple won this time. Barely.
In what would eventually be a 4-0 Oshkosh North victory, Strelow came to the plate with two outs in the top of the sixth inning with the Red Devils trailing 1-0 and sophomore Chloe Garofalo on first after an infield single.
This, for all practical purposes, was the game.
Strelow, who earlier hit a deep fly ball to left-center that was tracked down for a nice catch by Mollie Bittner, battled to a 2-2 count.
She then stroked a ball deep to right-center that seemed ticketed for the gap. But it hung up, and center fielder Emma Leib made a nice running catch just in front of the warning track to save a run.
“I thought it did (have a chance to find the gap),” Strelow said. “It felt really good off the bat. It kind of held up, and she caught it. Would’ve been a game-changer if the ball would’ve went over her.
“It was a good fight by us both. I never had faced her before. We’d never seen each other, so I think it was a good battle.”
A slight wind blowing in from right-center may have helped out the Spartans.
“We’re standing here right now in right-center field, and the wind’s blowing right into our backs, and that tells you what happened to that ball,” Bradford coach John P. Ruffolo said.
“It was still hit 215, 220 (feet), and the girl made a great catch on it. (Strelow) had another ball to left field that was driven, and (senior) Jadynn (Powell) hit a ball to left field that was driven.
“If any of those balls fall, we’re talking about a tie game through five. … That’s how the game works. Round ball, round bat. Crazy things happen.”
Said Supple of her sixth-inning battle with Strelow: “Sydney is an amazing player. All respect to her. She always puts up a good fight. I was excited for the challenge, and I was confident when the ball was hit that Emma was going to get it right away.
“My defense was in perfect position, so all credit to them.”
North stays perfect
With the win, Oshkosh North — the top-seeded team in the state draw and the top-ranked team in Division-1 in the final WisSports.net state coaches poll — improved to a spotless 30-0.
The Spartans will play either defending state champion Sun Prairie or Pulaksi — they were still playing their semifinal late Friday night — for the Division-1 title at approximately 6:30 p.m. today.
Bradford finished its season with a 24-7 record.
“We were (darn) near perfect for about five-and-a-half (innings),” Ruffolo said. “I’m just really proud of the way we played. … They’ve been ranked No. 1 from the beginning of the season to the end, the preseason poll to the end of the season.
“The way we played, I think it gave them everything they could handle.”
Tough to handle
Supple, who committed to Northwestern in eighth grade and has been named the Gatorade State Player of the Year three seasons in a row, always gives opposing offenses everything they can handle.
She allowed just three base runners, Garofalo’s single in the sixth, junior Kylie Rozinski’s leadoff single to left in the third and a hit-by-pitch to Powell with one out in the seventh.
The left-handed Supple (26-0) finished with 13 strikeouts and no walks, giving her an incredible 25 strikeouts and no walks in two State Tournament games.
“She changes speeds well,” Strelow said. “You don’t know what she’s going to throw next. We had a good game plan going in. We knew we could up a good fight against her, and we did. I’m proud of us.”
Added Ruffalo: “It’s not any one thing. … We tried to take away the rise ball a little bit today, and we had some pretty good at-bats, but then she mixed the changeup in pretty well, she hit the outside corner with the curveball a few times with two strikes and froze some hitters.
“That’s a credit to her.”
Bradford freshman pitcher Livie Lehmann, who finished a stellar high school debut season with a 14-5 mark, wasn’t as overpowering as Supple, but she sure showed off her toughness.
Lehmann stranded 10 Oshkosh North runners, including twice with the bases loaded after Ruffolo elected to intentionally walk a batter with runners on second and third and two outs.
In the bottom of the third, Lehmann got Courtney Day to pop softly to Strelow at short on one pitch with the bases loaded and two outs. In the fourth, after the Spartans had taken a 1-0 lead, Lehmann got Sophie Averkamp to ground out to Josie Deates at third with two outs and the bases juiced.
“What does that say about your freshman pitcher when you’re willing to load the bases?” Ruffolo said. “It says that you believe in her command, and you believe in the defense behind her.”
Lehmann kept it a 1-0 deficit, but Strelow’s deep fly in the sixth was Bradford’s best and last chance to tie or take the lead.
The Spartans put it away in the bottom of the sixth, as Brooke Ellestad and Supple both smacked RBI triples to left-center that kept slicing away from Bradford senior center fielder Arin Bonofiglio, and Libby Neveau plated another run with an RBI infield single.
Scoring four runs off Supple was too tough of a task to ask, as the Red Devils — who came into Friday having won 14 of their last 15 games — saw their eight-game wining streak and their season come to an end.
“The team motto all season was, ‘Make it epic,’” Ruffolo said.
“When you’re here in the second-to-last game of the season, and there’s only four teams left out of 112 — and there’s only 18 hours left in the entire season — I think it’s mission accomplished.