Bruins dethroned by Zebras

Lincoln’s two-out rally in the seventh ends Bear River’s PVL title streak at three
By: Russ Edmondson Gold Country News Service
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Lincoln High’s varsity softball team clinched its first Pioneer Valley League championship in 10 years with Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over the visiting Bear River Bruins. The Zebras (11-0 in PVL play) are the only team to beat Bear River (9-2) in league play this season. Both teams will play one more league game as Lincoln (21-3-1 overall) will play at Mesa Verde on Thursday while Bear River (19-4 overall) will play at Whitney. Both games are at 4 p.m. Bear River, which won the last three PVL championships, must beat third-place Whitney on Thursday to head into the playoffs as the PVL’s No. 2 seed. A loss would create a one-game playoff between the same two teams. Both Bear River and Whitney have already qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section, Division IV playoffs along with Lincoln. Tuesday’s game was tied 1-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh and final inning. Bear River pitcher Erin Nichol retired the first two Lincoln batters on groundballs but Lincoln’s Nikoli Sharp then reached base with a hard single to left. Kacie Freymond followed up with an infield single and Lincoln’s Stephanie Tofft was walked intentionally. This set the table for Lincoln junior clean-up batter Katie Emerson. Emerson was 0-3 on the day with two strikeouts prior to this at bat. This time she came through, ripping a 3-1 pitch down the left-field line to score Sharp and give Lincoln the PVL title. “My knee was hurting me before my last at bat (from a collision at first base earlier in the game) and I was thinking about my other at bats,” Emerson said. “So I had everything going through my mind . . . But I was ready. I guess that’s why I’m the clean-up hitter, I come through in the clutch.” She definitely noticed how Tofft reached base in front of her. “It’s kind of disrespectful and they want me so come and get it,” said Emerson about her mindset after a batter is walked intentionally directly in front of her. “It’s been so long (since Lincoln won the league) – 10 years – I’m so excited.” Lincoln’s longtime softball coach Donna Tofft had called timeout to talk to Emerson before the final at bat. “I just told her ‘let’s go up there with a purpose,’” Tofft said. “(This championship) all comes down to team chemistry and team hitting. I’m proud of each and every one of them. They complained and tried to get out of practice (at times) but when it came down to crunch time they came through.” Bear River coach Duane Zauner was obviously disappointed with the loss but he was proud of his players. “They battled. We did a good job and the kids battled and we had opportunities (to score more runs),” Zauner said. Bear River had a runner on third base with no outs in the top of the first inning and didn’t score. The Bruins also had the bases loaded in the fifth inning and didn’t score against Tofft. Tofft struck out the side in the first inning after Bear River’s Courtney Ceo reached base on a dropped third strike. Lincoln got out of the fifth-inning rally because of a very good defensive play Freymond at shortstop. With one out and the bases loaded in the fifth inning, she dove to catch a soft liner and doubled off a Bruin runner to end the inning. “We’ve struggled with (hitting in the clutch) all year,” Zauner said. “Striking out or popping up (in the clutch) . . . 22 percent of the time (overall) we have struck out this year coming into the game and it’s increased now. Championship teams don’t do that.” Lincoln took a 1-0 lead in the last of the third inning when Tofft hit a one-out single with the bases loaded to score catcher Courtney Jones. Ashley Kencke reached base on an error and Freymond had a bunt single to help set the table for Tofft. Bear River tied the score in the top of the fourth inning as Katie Mathis walked, advanced to second on a ball that got by the catcher and then stole third. She scored when the throw to third base on her steal attempt went into left field. Both Tofft (two hits, four walks, no earned runs, 10 strikeouts) and Nichol (seven hits, three walks, two earned runs, five strikeouts) threw all seven innings. Freymond went 3-for-4 for the Zebras while Tofft reached base safely three times (RBI single, two walks). Lincoln won 5-2 at Bear River when the teams met in the first round of league action. Tofft threw a complete game in that win, allowing four hits, five walks and one earned run while striking out 10. “The first time we played them they slapped it around on us (with base hits) and beat us up,” said Zauner, pointing out that his team played a lot better on Tuesday.