Very soon, senior league softball teams from all over the world will descend upon Roxana’s Pyle Center for a chance to win a Little League championship.
Last year, Nanticoke hacked their way through the losers’ bracket following an opening-round defeat by Laurel and nearly upset the eventual District III championship team in a two-game final.
Advancing to the World Series meant sweeping Laurel and, though Nanticoke grabbed the first game 4-0, Laurel proved too much. They advanced following a 4-1 win in the second game.
Laurel’s fourth-place World Series finish represented District II well, but it also resonated with the Nanticoke team.
One game separated them from a chance at sports glory and Laurel had snatched it from them.
A year passed — which is a long time to lick those wounds — but that time kindled a fire in head coach Mike Riggleman’s players.
Of the 12 players on last year’s Nanticoke team, 11 could have returned. Nine answered the call and they made their mark in a 3-0 opening-round win on July 17, sending Lower Sussex to the losers’ bracket and furthering their cause for a World Series title.
“We’re looking at it like this is ours to lose this year,” Riggleman said.
Nanticoke didn’t have many opportunities, but they made the ones they did have count and shut the door when they could.
Lower Sussex pitcher Katelyn Null and her Nanticoke counterpart Heather Draper held their opponents’ offense in check throughout the game.
Null struck out five — three of which ended the inning with runners in scoring position — walked one and only gave up three hits in a complete-game effort. But she would never receive any support.
Draper allowed only one hit, walked no one and struck out nine in a complete-game effort.
Lower Sussex’s struggles at the plate produced seven first-pitch outs and five 1-2-3 innings, and punctuated it by striking out for five of the last nine outs of the game.
Null wasn’t giving an inch and, despite two early errors, had averted any damage until the third inning.
Riggleman knew that in a close, well-pitched game, movement on the bases would be integral to Nanticoke’s success. So when his players did get on base, he made sure to get them moving.
“In the speed game, you try to score one run an inning. Fortunately, we got the right people on base and were able to steal bases, which is important — especially in a game like this,” Riggleman said.
Leadoff batter Kelsey Riggleman started Nanicoke’s two-out, third-inning rally with a bloop single over Lower Sussex first baseman Chelsea Collins’ outstretched arm into shallow right field. Kelsey Riggleman stole second on the first pitch to the next batter and advanced to third two pitches later, on an infield single by Karen Berg.
Coach Riggleman sent Berg to second on the next pitch (three of four Nanticoke stolen bases were on the first pitch) and Kelsey Riggleman put Nanticoke up 1-0 on a past pitch in a 1-2 count.
Draper nailed a two-out RBI single in the fourth gave Nanticoke a 2-0 lead but two more Lower Sussex errors one inning later would prove to be the icing on the cake.
A misplayed ball by leftfielder Carrie Rambo in the fifth inning gave Nanticoke a base runner at second with one out.
Berg struck out on four pitches for the second out, but a fielding error by shortstop Heather Hitchens allowed Danielle Handleman to advance to first base and would score Kelsey Riggleman from second.
Handleman hit the 1-2 pitch up the middle toward second base on the shortstop side for what seemed like a routine play. But the anticipation of getting out of the inning — and possibly the heat — distracted Hitchens from making the play at first.
Game-time temperatures at 6 p.m. edged around the low 90’s.
“It was ridiculously hot,” Lower Sussex head coach Dennis Clayton said. “We tried to keep them hydrated and cool, but these girls are gassed.”
“We played a great team today but we also showed we can play,” Clayton continued. “We’d love to get them again,” he added, referring to a possible repeat match-up if his team wins the losers’ bracket.
The game lasted only one hour and 15 minutes. And though the game went smoothly for Nanticoke, Draper knows that if they want to win a World Series championship, mental toughness will be the key – especially in the heat.
“The heat plays a role, but at this point you just have to tough it out,” Draper said. “You can’t just ask for clouds or a breeze.”
“But we’re really excited about this year,” she continued. “Laurel’s team was stacked last year. And this year I’m approaching every game like they’re stacked too.”