With teammate Madelyn Nelson sprinting to home plate in what would have been the tying run, Spring Lake senior Linsey Paggeot ripped a hard line drive to South Haven first baseman Anna Bocock. Instead of ricocheting away from Bocock, however, the ball bounced off the dirt and back into the waiting hands of the Rams' senior starter.
After bobbling the ball, she took two steps to the bag and recorded the final out of the inning, nullifying Nelson's run at home and turning the Lakers' championship dreams into what felt like a nightmare to those garnished in red and gray.
The Rams celebrated on the field after their 5-4 win over the No. 2-ranked Lakers, a mere three days after knocking off top-ranked Stevensville Lakeshore in the regional finals.
South Haven (31-8) advances to take on Dearborn Divine Child in Thursday's Division 2 state semifinals at Michigan State University.
For Spring Lake, two swings of the bat by the Rams were all it took to put them behind the 8-ball. A solo home run in the bottom of the third by Frances Lyons, followed by a two-out grand slam by Bocock a few batters later erased an early 4-0 lead by the Lakers and put South Haven in front for good at 5-4.
"It seemed like they were dodging a lot of bullets out there today," said Spring Lake head coach Bill Core after the game. "We got out of a bases-loaded jam ourselves, so we had a few things go our way, but it seemed like whenever there were two outs and an opportunity to score some runs, they made the plays.
"You had plays like when the ball almost goes over their right fielder's head, but she reaches out full extension and gets the snowcone. Then, their shortstop made a heck of a catch in a tight spot and their center fielder also made a nice play on a shot by Kileah (Rymal) that was rising. They just made all the plays in crunch time and that's what you have to do to advance."
Spring Lake came out firing on all cylinders to start Tuesday's contest, as senior Lauren Hellman started the game off by reaching on a single and advancing all the way to third base on a throwing error. Nelson would reach first base after a marathon at-bat before Paggeot scored Hellman from third on a sacrifice play that moved Nelson to third.
Starting pitcher Leah Vaughan would drive a pitch to the outfield to score Nelson on a sacrifice fly and give the Lakers an early 2-0 lead. Vaughan would make an early statement from the circle, as well, striking out the side in the bottom of the first to leave the Rams on their heels.
Spring Lake junior slugger Jenna Core added to the momentum with a solo homer to kick off the top of the second inning, while another sac fly by Vaughan in the top of the third inning scored Nelson from third base, extending the Laker lead to 4-0 heading into the bottom half of the third.
The Rams would shift the momentum back to their dugout with a solo home run by senior third baseman Frances Lyons that beamed off the foul pole and got South Haven on the scoreboard. Coach Core and the Lakers decided to walk star slugger Hayley Kreiger after that, while Vaughan would mow down two straight batters to put the Rams back in a difficult spot.
However, a pair of walks shortly after that presented a problem, as Bocock took to the plate with two outs. After falling behind in the count, Bocock widened her stance and took a hefty swing at the pitch and sent it sailing over the centerfield fence. The South Haven crowd erupted as Bocock was swarmed by her teammates at home plate, giving the Rams a 5-4 lead and putting the Lakers in an unfamiliar position as they trailed midway through a contest.
"That third inning was a tough one," added Core. "It starts off with that home run off the foul pole. After that, we walk their best player (Hayley Kreiger) and strike out the next two batters. The next two batters get on base, and they get the dinger to clear the bases. We had two strikes on both of those home runs, too. Sometimes, it's just a matter of inches."
Despite falling short of a state championship, Core hopes his club is remembered for a stellar two-year run that resulted in 77 wins and only six losses.
"We can't let one game, or one inning, really, define our season," he added. "They had all the answers today and sometimes it's just meant to be for someone else. They've beaten the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the state to keep their season alive, so maybe they are a team of destiny.
"The adults and coaches will probably appreciate this run a little more right now, but I'm sure once the sting of this loss goes away, these girls are really going to appreciate what we've accomplished here. They've really put Spring Lake softball on the map. They've got nothing to be ashamed of, that's for sure. Seventy-seven wins in two seasons is pretty remarkable."
GOING DOWN SWINGING
Despite the loss, the final outs of the Lakers' season were all difficult plays made by their senior leaders.
Rymal and Hellman both ripped hard shots from the plate, but both were secured by Rams defenders. Then, Nelson kept the Lakers' season alive with a two-out triple that put the tying run on third. Paggeot's final swing was also a hard-hit play, as the squad showcased their mental toughness in an otherwise unnerving spot.
"That was a great at-bat by Madelyn," said Core. "We're down to our final out, and she really made their pitcher work and finally got a hold of one and stretched it out into a triple. She's our best hitter, so she's been doing that all season for us. It would have been nice to have someone on base in front of her, but we couldn't get anything past them defensively.
"Linsey's hit was a pretty hard shot, too. Their first baseman had to bobble it once or twice before she touched first. We have all the faith in the world in those two girls at the plate. They (South Haven) just made all the plays that were out there today, and you have to give them credit for that."
While in the moment, Nelson could feel the pressure of the at-bat, but wanted to go out on her own terms.
"I was shaking," she said after the game. "I was so nervous, but I knew that if I just swung like it was a normal at-bat it would be fine. I knew that it was going to be my last at-bat of the high school season, so I really wanted to keep fighting the count and get a hit.
"I was so happy when I made contact. It was a good last at-bat."
A 40-win season and another new school record for wins in a single spring will give the seniors something to hang their hats on as they reflect on their careers.
"This game doesn't define who we are," added Hellman. "There were plays out there today that we usually would get outs on or get on base, and we didn't. It just wasn't our day. The tears aren't necessarily because we lost, it is just sad to be done because this year was so good and so much fun.
"I think part of it was talent, but mostly, everyone on our team has played travel ball since they were young," added Nelson.
"We have played a lot together," added Hellman. "There is just so much chemistry with this team, and we clicked from the start. We know how to play with each other. We know how to deal with each other and what to expect from each other."
Spring Lake will graduate five starters from this year's historic team in Nelson, Paggeot, Hellman, Somers and Rymal.
"We wanted to go to state," Nelson said. "We really believed that we could do it.
"We had a lot of confidence," added Hellman. "We had a strong feeling we would be here. This morning, we had a lot of confidence that we could do it; it just didn't end up happening."