The Chesapeake softball team will play for the state championship.
The Cougars secured that opportunity with one of their most complete wins of the season Tuesday night, getting the latest outstanding pitching performance from Haley Downin and key hits from up and down the lineup to blank the Linganore Lancers 5-0 in the 3A state semifinals at Bachman Sports Complex and advance to Saturday’s state championship game at the University of Maryland.
Charli Smith was 2 for 2 with a sac bunt and two RBIs, Sophia Bianco singled and scored twice, and Kexin Wang blasted a solo home run to lead a balanced and deep Chesapeake offensive attack. Downin scattered six hits and recorded eight strikeouts as the Cougar defense helped her work swiftly out of runners-on situations, and the Chesapeake lineup came up with the big hits to give her a lead.
Now, the Cougars are in the state final for the first time since 2014, looking to capture the crown for the first time in over a decade.
“I am so excited,” said Downin. “Senior year, we haven’t been there the whole time I’ve been at Chesapeake, and I’m ready.”
No one could question whether or not the Cougars were ready against the Lancers; Chesapeake was bounding in and out of the dugout with their characteristic mix of happily playful energy and big-game intensity, and the results started coming nearly immediately.
Downin allowed singles to the leadoff batter in both the first inning and second inning, but nothing rattled her approach; in the first, she induced two ground balls and a fly out, and in the second, she struck out the side.
With Chesapeake’s athletic and playmaking fielders, she kept a next-play mentality.
“I just throw the next pitch, and I trust that if the ball does get hit, the defense is going to do their job to back me up,” said Downin. “Even if there’s runners on, they’ll find a way to make a play for me.”
In the bottom of the second inning, Chesapeake opened the scoring. Bianco singled and was bunted to second by Smith, then advanced to third on a passed ball before coming home to score on an RBI single by fellow freshman Kendall Thomas.
Naturally, Thomas agreed it helps everyone’s outlook to jump out to a lead.
“It makes the whole team excited and pumped up, and then they have confidence to hit the ball and do what they can,” said Thomas.
Bianco and Thomas said the team’s five freshmen (Ali Pollack, Devan Wenger and Norah Hart) aren’t shy to the moment and are happy to be coming up with key plays during Chesapeake’s playoff run.
“We love it,” said Bianco. “We love the team and want to see everyone succeed. We all mesh well together, and that’s the one thing that our team has that other team’s don’t have.”
It showed throughout the game, and they carried the momentum and positive energy even when Linganore made plays. In the bottom of the third, Tristyn Stewart and Jerzie Nutile led off with back-to-back singles, giving Chesapeake two runner with no outs. The Lancers nearly turned an amazing triple play when Pollack lined out and Stewart was doubled off second, and Nutile just beat the throw back to first. Still, after a walk to Bianco, Nutile came around to score on a two-out RBI single by Smith to make it 2-0 Chesapeake.
In the fourth, Wang took her turn in the spotlight. With the bases empty, she went down in the count after waving softly and missing at a pitch that was too high. Instead of folding the at-bat or getting nervous, she received some gentle heckling from her own teammates, turned and smiled at the dugout, stepped back into the box and crushed a line drive over the fence in center field.
She trotted around first with an ear-to-ear smile, arms spread wide, living the dream, a home run in the state tournament. Linganore’s third baseman gave her a high five as she passed by, perhaps trying to siphon some mojo for her side. Wang was mobbed deliriously by teammates, now up 3-0, at home plate.
“I do that all the time,” said Wang of her relaxed, laughter-filled approach at the plate. “I’m used to being down in the count and having to come back. I’m so used to that kind of pressure now, especially as a senior. So I laugh it off and I go back to work. We just…we have fun. When we’re having fun, we do better.”
Chesapeake tacked on insurance in the fifth. Pollack reached on an error, and Bianco walked. Smith, a junior, thought she was out when she hit a pop up in foul territory to the right side of the infield, but it was an awkward play for the Linganore first baseman, who dropped the ball. The extra opportunity for Smith turned into a hard grounder through the left side of the infield, scoring Pollack. Bianco drew a throw after rounding second, but the throw went into center field, Bianco sped home and Smith advanced to second and pumped her fists while getting cheers from the dugout. Chesapeake led 5-0.
“When I got a new chance [after the dropped pop up], I was like, ‘I gotta make this count,’” said Smith. “We’ve got two runners on. I was lucky enough to hit it in the hole, and we scored, so I was really happy. …It feels really great. I’m really happy to contribute in a huge game. [Coach Don] always says during the season, it really matters when playoffs happen, and this is where it counts. So, I was really happy I could show up today.”
The 5-0 lead was more than enough for Downin, who brushed off a leadoff double in the sixth inning as the Cougars caught the batter in a rundown for the first out and Downin struck out the next two batters to end the inning. In the seventh, the senior induced two grounders before getting the final out on a strikeout. Stewart, Chesapeake’s catcher, embraced Downin in front of home plate as the Cougars descended for a team hug, their berth in the state final duly earned.
Linganore did not have a runner advance past second base after the game’s first batter.
Coach Don Ellenberger said Downin’s performance was typical of his senior, who has gotten stronger and stronger each year and with each game this season.
“From where she came into the program as really not being a pitcher per se, and taking the ball and going from freshman year to where she is now, I don’t even worry about it,” he said. “She’s going to handle whatever happens. She’s proved it umpteen times this year. Especially tonight against a great ball club. Now, she knows she’s got one more. She’s worked on everything year-round, all the pitches, and she’s not afraid to throw them in any situation. She’s unbelievable. You see what she’s done with pitching, then she’s over .500 hitting from the leadoff spot and everything else we ask her to do. I don’t think there’s anyone better, pitching, hitting, steals, defense—she’s the whole package.”
Now, the Cougars will face a tough test for the championship when they square off with Huntingtown, 10-2 winners over Bel Air in the other semifinal played simultaneously on Tuesday on the neighboring field at Bachman, in Saturday’s final at Maryland at 5 p.m.
Ellenberger took teams to the final in 2011, 2012 and 2014, and Chesapeake last won the crown in 2008. The program has seven state championships and will be making its 14th appearance in a final.
He knows how hard it is to win the whole thing, and he sees a Chesapeake group that has ascended, climbed, worked, improved, succeeded, enjoyed themselves and put themselves into a great position.
“I’m so happy for the girls,” he said. “Everyone makes it their mission to make it to Maryland and then win one. For these seniors to actually pull it off and keep everyone together, it’s a testament to them and also to a really young club. We have four freshmen starting and two sophomores. They’ve hung together. They’ve battled. They’ve practiced as hard as everybody else, and it’s been an awesome experience for all of us, especially the coaches, who have to try to keep their heads straight.”
After tweaking the lineup in the early part of the season, the Cougars landed on the right mix, and eventually, Ellenberger said, the Cougars “got hot and started hitting, and now we’re just doing enough.”
“If we can do just enough one more time,” said Ellenberger, “that would be sweet.”