COLLEGE PARK, Md.—The Chesapeake softball team’s outstanding season came up one win shy of a storybook finish.
The Cougars met a worthy champion in Huntingtown in the 3A state final on May 25, and the Hurricanes scored a 2-0 victory to capture their second straight championship.
Hurricanes ace pitcher Victoria Fletcher worked for key outs to escape jams in the third and seventh innings. Huntingtown benefitted from a pair of Chesapeake errors in the sixth inning to plate two unearned runs, ending the Cougars’ otherwise sterling season.
“We had our opportunities,” said Chesapeake coach Don Ellenberger. “We had runners on, and if we get a key hit I’m almost positive that game doesn’t end the way it did. And then, we put pressure on them [in the seventh], so we came back and fought to the end.”
In her final high school start, senior pitcher Haley Downin delivered yet another gem for the Cougars, going six innings, scattering five hits, striking out eight and allowing no earned runs to give Chesapeake a chance against Fletcher, who brought a 0.68 ERA into the game along with 21 wins and a 64-mph fastball.
In Chesapeake’s previous playoff wins over J.M. Bennett, Northeast, Reservoir and Linganore, the Cougars jumped out to early leads, carried the energy and momentum and never relented while riding off into the sunset with memorable victories.
Against Huntingtown, they enjoyed no such luxury, and the game hung tenuously in the balance while neither team managed to take a lead.
The Cougars nearly got to Fletcher in the top of the third. Norah Hart led off with a single, Kexin Wang walked and Downin singled to give Chesapeake a bases-loaded opportunity with one out.
From there, Tristyn Stewart hit a sharp grounder, but the Hurricanes made the force at home to prevent the run. Jerzie Nutile came to the plate and blasted a towering drive to left field, off and over the top of the fence, but her would-be grand slam was just foul. Fletcher got Nutile to strike out on the next pitch and keep the game scoreless.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Huntingtown led off with a single and a walk. After a groundout, a pair of Chesapeake errors on successive batters allowed the Hurricanes to plate two runs and take a lead.
Down to their final three outs in the top of the seventh, Chesapeake’s Ali Pollack led off with a walk, and Sophia Bianco reached on an error; the Cougars had life and legitimate hope with two runners on and no outs. But a Chesapeake bunt attempt failed for the first out, and Hart grinded through an 11-pitch at-bat before belting a sharp grounder to first.
Huntingtown’s first baseman fielded the short hop, stepped on first for the out and threw to second to tag Bianco for a game-ending, championship-clinching, 3-4 double play.
As a program, the Cougars have made the state final 14 times and have seven titles. Coach Don Ellenberger has taken six teams to the final and won back-to-back 4A crowns in 2007 and 2008. Chesapeake has fallen in its four finals appearance since (2011, 2012, 2014 and 2019).
Ellenberger knows how hard it is to win the whole thing, which is why his excitement for this group grew from the beginning of the season.
“We saw something in them probably around Week 2,” he said. “I told them I believe if we buy into everything we’re trying, we’ve got a shot to go to Maryland. The bottom line to it was, they bought in, and they work hard. … We got a little better. That’s what it’s all about. They believed, and this group had no drama, which is rare. Usually you’ve always got some drama. They believed and they pulled together. You heard them cheering like crazy from the beginning. That’s the way they’ve been all year. As a coach, can’t ask for more than that.”
Downin leaves Chesapeake as one of the most accomplished athletes in school history. In addition to her standout careers in soccer and basketball, she holds 13 program records for softball, including career records for wins (66), hits (176), batting average (.524), runs (145) and doubles (44). Downin’s 44 doubles set a state record.
“We grew up a lot [throughout the season] and gave it our all,” said Downin. “It just wasn’t our day. I’m just proud of our team for all the effort they’ve given and the time they put in at practice. This team this year was really close.”
The state-final loss does not overshadow what was otherwise a tremendous season for Chesapeake. The Cougars went 20-4, defeated Severna Park for the county championship, ousted Pasadena rival and playoff nemesis Northeast from the 3A East and swept up the school community with a contagiously fun-loving spirit.
With a roster featuring five freshmen and three sophomores, as well as a JV program that won the county championship, the Cougars appear to be set up for continued success. Ellenberger is reluctant to predict greatness but conceded the team is well equipped to contend in the next two to three years.
“If everybody stays healthy and all that, we’ll be competitive with probably almost everybody again, and I hardly ever say that,” he said.
Nutile, a rising junior, will step up as the primary pitcher and thinks the Cougars have the squad in place and motivation to go further.
“We’re the second-best in the state, and it can get better, but that’s good,” said Nutile. “I believe that this won’t be our last time here. I think the years ahead, I think we’ve got it.”
Stewart, the team’s catcher and also a rising junior, was appreciative of the team’s accomplishments despite the loss, saying the fire is lit to keep the success going.
“We just played the No. 1 team in the state, and we just barely lost, and they didn’t earn their runs,” said Stewart. “For our first time appearing in this, it’s incredible that we even got to step on this field in our lifetime. Like Coach Don said, there are so many people who wanted to get this chance. Even that we get this chance is incredible, and it’s an amazing feeling. Hopefully in the near future we’ll be back on this field again playing.”
Downin had bittersweet advice for the players coming back for Chesapeake.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “Just tell them to work hard and give it all they’ve got, because it goes by quick.”
The 2019 state-finalist Chesapeake softball players are Downin, Hart, Wang, Stewart, Nutile, Pollack, Bianco, Courtney Croson, Brittany Ledson, Carina Royston, Skylar Storm, Charli Smith, Devan Wenger and Kendall Thomas. They are coached by Ellenberger, Don Collins, Tom Owen and Leroy Downin and JV coaches Brittany Owen and Tony DeAngelis.
Ellenberger praised Downin and fellow seniors Wang and Ledson for their contributions and leadership.
“I can talk about Haley for probably the rest of my life,” said Ellenberger. “She broke 13 school records and a state record, and almost all of them belonged to Lauren Gibson. That’s all because of her and her dedication to her craft. She’s been unbelievable. One of the best players ever to come out of Chesapeake for sure… Kexin Wang, for three years she wouldn’t even say hi. She finally started talking to me this year. I think it was because I kept telling her, ‘You can really play.’ She’s been unbelievable. She’s hit over .400 for the year and played a great right field, and she’s going into the Air Force, and that is, I told her, ‘I’m most proud of what you accomplished, and you’re going to go do what you really want to do, and that’s pretty cool.’ Brittany Ledson didn’t hardly play because we had kids last year that were ahead of her, and then the freshmen came in and took her position away, but she never complained. She hardly got any at-bats, cheered, did everything. You don’t always find those kids, especially a senior. They want to be out there, and sometimes they’ll be mumbling more than you need ‘em to. Didn’t have any of that. I still think Brittany will come back and be a coach one day, because she’s always talking about strategy. So I’ll probably lose my job soon.”