By Brandon Lang
In a game where both hits and runs were tough to come by, the SPASH Panthers came out victorious over the Merrill Blue jays 2 – 0 on Tuesday afternoon to pick up their 16th straight Wisconsin Valley Conference title.
Merrill defeated the Panthers in April and, as SPASH head coach Tom Drohner described it, put them behind the eight ball. But the Panthers were able to buckle down and pull out another title.
“Merrill did have a couple loses along the way that allowed us to have this game for the conference championship,” said Coach Drohner.
This game went a lot like the first game, with both teams struggling to get hits, let alone runs. Aubrey Drohner was superb once again for SPASH, going seven innings and allowing only two hits to go along with 2 walks and eight strikeouts.
Merrill put MaKayla Heckendorf in the circle, the same pitcher who beat SPASH in their first meeting. Her motion was simple, but the action she put on the ball was not as the Panthers hit pop-fly after pop-fly.
“She did a great job of spinning the ball because we couldn’t square up on anything,” said Coach Drohner. “Give her a lot of credit she did a nice job. It wasn’t moving a ton but it was moving enough that we couldn’t get the meat part of the bat on it.”
“She was pitching really well,” said Aubrey Drohner. “I feel like the ball was rising a bit at the plate and that’s why we were popping them up.”
In fact, the only person who could get the “meat part” on it was Maggie Gruber, who recorded both of SPASH’s hit and drove in a run.
“We couldn’t square up on anything except for Maggie Gruber who did a nice job and got a couple of hits for us,” said coach Drohner.
One of the two Panther runs was scored in the second inning. Shaylee Kluck and Payton Gaber led off the frame with back-to-back walks leading up to Gruber’s bunt. She laid down a good one and her hustle caused the third basemen to overthrow first, leading to Kluck crossing home.
After the second, SPASH was unable to capitalize again until the fifth. Brooke Tuszka started the inning off getting hit by a pitch and her pinch runner, Kelsey Godin, was able to advance to third. A wild throw back to third from Merrill’s catcher allowed her to scamper home and give SPASH a little more wriggle room.
Two runs was all they’d need, but it didn’t looked that way in the top of the sixth as Merrill was poised to strike. Cassandra Casper hit a sharp groundball to Drohner who got to it at an awkward angle and was unable to make the play. Brooke Bushor came up next drew a hard-fought walk. After the walk Coach Drohner brought his infield to the mound for a conference.
“I knew they were going to bunt, so I wanted them to know to just get an out,” said coach Drohner.
Bunt they did, and then it was up to the Panthers’ defense to deliver once again. Drohner got a big out by ringing up Maddix Bonnell, and then she got Chelsey LaMonica to ground out, ending the threat without a run scoring.
“Aubrey got a big strikeout there and we were able to get out of the jam. You have a good feel for your players and I like to use my trips to the mound as wisely as I can,” said coach Drohner.
SPASH doesn’t lose often and they definitely don’t lose in the conference often, so when they do and they get a chance to avenge their loss, they take the game very seriously– especially when a conference title lies in the balance.
“It feels great (to beat them). We came in motivated and it was a big game on the line. We were motivated to win this game and we did it,” said Aubrey Drohner. “It’s awesome to keep the tradition going.”
With the season winding down the Panthers improved to 21 – 3 on the year and 10 – 1 in the Valley. Their next game is away against D.C. Everest on Thursday. SPASH has won at least a share of 17 out of the last 18 WVC titles.