Building anything takes time. Houses, financial portfolios, classic hotrods and even sports teams take time to build — and in the case of Lower Sussex’s Senior League Softball All-Stars, they have a pretty good start for the future.
Head Coach Dennis Clayton was given a tough task, like many other coaches in the league: put a team together in a couple of weeks and do your best to be successful. That would seem to be an easy task, except they earned a first-round match-up against perennial softball powerhouse Laurel on July 15.
Laurel placed fifth in the world last year at the Little League World Series and is, no doubt, primed for another run at the championship.
Through three innings of play on July 15, Lower Sussex trailed Laurel 3-0 but held their ground and showed their titanic opponent that the game would definitely go the distance — with no mercy rule.
Leftfielder Krystle Clayton brought the chips to the party by laying down a beautiful leadoff bunt single in the top of the third inning.
“Krystle did a really good job against Laurel,” said the coach. “She went 2-2 for two bunt singles and she safely hit 3-4 for the tournament with three bunt singles and a sac fly.”
Tiffany Morris followed Krystle Clayton and earned a bunt single of her own, but scored a runner on an errant throw to first. Krystle Clayton motored around to score Lower Sussex’s first run, cutting Laurel’s lead to 3-1. Second-baseman Shannon Phillips scored Morris on a RBI fielder’s choice, which would be their last run of the game.
“Tiffany is the fastest girl on the field that I’ve ever seen,” said Dennis Clayton. “I put her in running situations and she’s scored a run and stole a couple of bases in addition to her bunt single.”
Lower Sussex kept the pressure on defensively in the bottom of the third and fourth innings, though.
Third-baseman Caitlyn Blitz made a great shoestring grab in foul territory with one out (one she had scooped and delivered to first on a first-pitch ground out) in the bottom of the third.
“Caitlyn is really attentive, can hit well and has a cannon for an arm,” said Dennis Clayton.
Lower Sussex turned a rare 1-3-2 inning-ending double play in the bottom of the fourth inning to strand runners at second and third bases.
The game would stay locked at 3-2 in Laurel’s advantage until the bottom of the sixth inning, when Laurel jumped on Phillips’ pitching to tack on four more runs.
Phillips sandwiched two quick pop-outs between a walk to Erin Tingle. Another walk later and Shaniqua Kellam stepped to the plate looking to do damage.
She quickly got ahead of the count 2-0 then stroked a two-RBI double, giving Laurel a 5-2 lead. An error in centerfield on a Brittney Joseph at-bat scored Kellam for the final run of the game, with Laurel winning the game 6-2.
Despite losing, Dennis Clayton said his girls had no reason to hang their heads.
“Laurel is a heck of a team and has played together for a number of years and I told my girls that if they gave 100 percent, then they can walk out of here proud,” said Dennis Clayton.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t get the upset,” he added. “We were psyched for the game and hung right with them till the end. We know we can play with them”
After losing to Laurel, Lower Sussex then turned their attention to Millsboro but wasn’t able to string together enough hits to score runs.
Millsboro came out like a whirlwind and scored six fast runs, and Lower Sussex never rebounded.
Tournament-starting pitcher Chelsea Collins did retire the final batter in a two-out, bases-loaded situation with help from a diving Stephanie Highfield to secure the out.
“Chelsea and Shannon both pitched their hearts out in my opinion,” said Dennis Clayton. “I wanted to limit their innings in the first game so they would both be eligible for the second game.”
In addition, Dennis Clayton noted that many of his players’ team-first attitudes made coaching a pleasure.
“Heather Hitchens (shortstop) is absolutely awesome,” said Dennis Clayton. “I’ve had her on my teams now about four times and she’s without a doubt the most coachable player. She’s listens and is a team player.”
“Shannon is also another one of those players that is such a great kid,” continued Dennis Clayton. “She’ll pitch or catch — she’ll play wherever you want or need.”
Though the Senior League Softball All-Stars didn’t end their season the way they might’ve liked and for most of them, Little League is over — softball isn’t.
“Most of these girls play JV or varsity ball and they will continue to improve and have other opportunities to win big games in high school,” said Dennis Clayton.