Gators get crown

By MICHAEL LETENDRE

STAFF WRITER

BRISTOL – On the biggest stage of the year, the battle between the Gators and the Panthers in the Bristol Girls Little League Softball City Series on Thursday, June 6 was still in doubt as the game was coming to an exciting conclusion.

Tied up at 9-9 going into the bottom go the fifth, the Gators scored two-fifth inning runs and then let the defense do the rest – leading to an 11-9 win from Rockwell Park as the Gators captured the City Series championship.

And while Gators head coach Adam Whitlock was excited for his squad, he quickly acknowledged the tremendous effort by the Panthers after the game.

“That’s a fantastic group of kids over there,” said Whitlock of the Panthers. “They’re 13 kids who have the highest character. They can ball, they can run, they can throw.”

“They made great defensive plays.”

The only thing that seemed to foil the Panthers was a little bad luck throughout the game.

The squad trailed 4-0 and 9-4 but came back to tie the game both times in dramatic fashion.

In the end, that one timely hit just never emerged for the Panthers while a couple breaks ended up going the Gators’ way instead.

“I’ve asked them all year long, the number one thing that I wanted them to do is just give it 100-percent effort and never stop the fight,” said Panthers coach Kevin Hatcher. “I told them one time, I played youth sports and my coach – when I was younger – I’ll never forget him because he expected us to go to battle and never give up. And I told them, I hate to compare myself to anyone but at the same time I was like my same expectation is on them.”

“Maybe it took a little bit [longer] earlier in the season, we had some stumbles, but at some point they clicked and they just refused to lose.”

And the Panthers had early chances over the first two innings to put runs on the scoreboard but could not.

The Panthers’ Madison Charette drilled a base hit to get on with two outs, stole second but ended up stranded to open the showdown as the Gators went on the attack.

Arianna Rivera walked with one out in the first for the Gators as did Makayla Bouchard – eventually putting runners on second and third.

And off a walk to Mikayla Antunes (2-for-2, two walks, three runs scored), the ball was thrown away at first base, scoring Rivera from third to make it a 1-0 game.

Panthers’ pitcher Sam Burke generated a strikeout for the second out but Makayla Bouchard (three walks, single, three runs scored) sprinted home on a wild pitch as the Gators led 2-0 through one completed frame.

But the Panthers had a bit of a response as Giavana Hatcher led off with a walk and Jayna Hatcher sent a single streaking to left field.

Both runners advanced via a wild pitch but Gators’ pitcher Brooklyn Whitlock (2-0 in City Series play) came up huge.

She struck out the next two batters looking and forced a groundout to get out of the inning as the game remained a 2-0 affair with the Gators due up.

Leah Webber laid down a perfect bunt as the hit put a runner on.

And when Whitlock struck out, the ball was dropped and the lead runner sprinted to third base.

Whitlock was out at first but Webber scored on an error to make it 3-0 in the Gators’ favor.

Burke, who threw extremely well over her no-decision, rang up a huge strikeout to get out of a second and third jam and going into the third inning, the Panthers were just trailing by three runs.

It was the top order for the Panthers and Delaney Bartell was quickly robbed of a double by the Gators’ Shayna Baker in right field who made an amazing catch for the first out.

“The one catch in right field, [Baker] told me just before she got to the game ‘I was practicing with my mom. I worked on pop-ups’ and it paid off,” said Whitlock.

That started a neat 1-2-3 inning and the Gators’ 3-0 push was holding.

Libby Chambers drew a one-out walk for the Gators in the third and quickly stole second to get into scoring position.

An error at first base allowed Chambers to score, propelling the Gators to a 4-0 lead.

And Whitlock had retired six straight going into the fourth inning with the momentum on the side of the Gators.

“My little one, I’m proud of her,” said Whitlock of Brooklyn.

But Burke broke up that streak up with an infield hit to shortstop though Antunes made one heck of a try at the catch and throw-over to get her at first.

Jayna Hatcher then forced a one-out walk to put two runners on.

And Sophia Pelkey chopped out a grounder that took a weird hop into right field – plating Burke – and quickly, it was a 4-1 contest and the Panthers were on the prowl with runners in scoring position.

A wild pitch scored Jayna Hatcher from third, cutting the deficit in half.

Ava Johnston walked and when Caydence Levesque sent a screamer to right, Pelkey scored and eventually, Johnson crossed the plate when the ball got away from the right fielder and off the tally, it was a brand new game at 4-4.

“When [they’re] clicking, it’s almost impossible to stop (them),” said Hatcher of his squad. “And when they started believing that, I think you could see how quickly things could change around. To be down four, where it seemed like if you don’t get out of this inning [with some runs], this is probably going to be it.”

“But they responded.”

However, the Gators’ head coach was not shaken in the least as he knew his team would respond.

“It’s a tied ball game and we get to hit three more times,” implored Whitlock to his girls coming off the field. “It’s a great place to be.”

The Gators then scored five runs in the fourth without committing an out.

Jayna Hatcher took over for Burke on the mound in the bottom of the fourth but had to square off against the top of the Gators’ potent line-up.

Kayla Webber walked to leadoff and stole second off the next pitch.

A wild pitch saw the runner take third and a squeeze bunt scored the runner as Rivera’s big RBI tally gave the lead back to the Gators, 5-4.

Rivera then scored on three wild pitches and the Gators were quickly ahead by two runs.

Antunes later dropped a single to right – putting runners on the corners – and a classic double steal allowed Bouchard to score as it became a 7-4 contest.

And when Hailey Beebe’s fly ball was misplayed in right, Antunes scored and it was a four-run cushion again for the Gators – this time at 8-4.

After another walk to Leah Webber, Whitlock was up with the bases juiced.

And she walked in the fifth and final run of the stanza as the RBI propelled the home squad to a 9-4 cushion going into the top of the fifth.

However, the Panthers were about to push five runs across to re-tie the event.

“It’s like ‘here we go again,’” said Hatcher of being down multiple runs. “And we just came back and responded.”

Burke greeted Whitlock with a grounder down the third base-line for a base hit and Jadaysha Smalls walked to start another rally.

Jayna Hatcher reached base off an error as three ducks were on the pond with no outs.

Burke scored on an RBI groundout as the Panther got within four at 9-5.

Provenzano then generated a base-on-balls as the tying run was at the plate.

Courtney Watson reached base on an error, plating Smalls, and making it a 9-6 game before Nickerson sent a long fly-ball to right.

The fielder just missed making the catch as three runners scored and the 3-RBI double tied the contest up at 9-9 as the Panthers refused to be denied.

“This is a team that played other towns, played in town and often time it was a mercy ruled (game),” said Whitlock of the Gators. “Blanked a team, scored 15 runs, ended in four innings. And you can’t do that against the Panthers. These kids, top to bottom, the entire line-up was successful.”

The Gators’ Myah Steiner walked with one out in the bottom of the fifth but was caught swiping second base off a nice Nickerson tag.

And then it was a repeat performance as Kayla Webber walked and tried to take second.

There was that Levesque throw to second and tag by Nickerson for out number two.

Rivera and Bouchard then both singled and advanced on a wild pitch.

A wild pitch scored Rivera – as the go-ahead run came across the dish – and when the ball was spinning around the infield, Bouchard eventually followed suit as the two-out rally produced an 11-9 lead.

Quickly, the Panthers were down to its final three outs in the sixth.

Charette started the final stanza with a walk but Rivera caught a pop-up at third and then made a perfect throw to first to double-up the Panthers.

But Giavana Hatcher kept her squad alive with a base-hit to center and again, the tying run was at the plate.

However, one final pop-up to second ended the game as the Gators won the City Series championship over an outstanding, hard fought 11-9 victory against the double-tough Panthers.

“I’m out of this world proud of that display of fight,” said Hatcher of his team. “We were asking them to do things with shifts and things like that, things that they never even practiced before and putting kids in positions maybe they haven’t [played]. And they plowed through that.”

“Even when the coaches put them a little on edge, they still fought through it. I just couldn’t be prouder of that kind of effort from the girls.”

“It was a great, great effort by both teams,” said Whitlock. “It was a good day for Bristol.”

To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Michael Letendre, email him at MLetendre@BristolObserver.com.