The pitching was on point. The offense came in punctuated bursts. The defense put the game in a highlight-filled stranglehold.
Add it all up: the Cougars are going to the state tournament.
Chesapeake softball punched its ticket to states by defeating visiting Reservoir High School 3-1 on Friday to claim the 3A East region championship.
Senior pitcher Haley Downin threw a complete game and allowed just five hits, one walk and an unearned run while striking out eight to earn the victory. Freshman Sophia Bianco singled, homered and scored twice to lead Chesapeake’s offense.
Senior right fielder Kexin Wang has been a member of several very strong Chesapeake teams that have failed to break through and win the region—until now.
“We’ve always gotten knocked out by Northeast, but we beat them this year, and now we’re here,” said Wang. “This team has so much talent, and I love everybody on this team. We all like each other and have fun when we play, and I’m just proud of everybody.”
Already sitting on a pair of county championships this season, the Cougars showed talent and had fun in winning the program’s 14th region championship and first trip to the state’s final four since 2014.
It didn’t come without a tough test from a Reservoir team with a deceptively middling record of 10-10 entering the game. The Gators were region champions in 2018 and were playing strong softball in recent weeks, and they started the game looking like a team ready to produce an upset; Reservoir’s first batter singled off Downin and came around to score on a pair of errors.
But from there, Downin locked down. She struck out the side in the first to end the inning, and Chesapeake came right back to plate a run and tie the game in the bottom of the first as Downin singled, Tristyn Stewart reached on a fielder’s choice and Jerzie Nutile singled.
Bianco resumed the scoring in the second, leading off with a single and scoring on a double by Norah Hart, giving Chesapeake the led it ultimately held for good.
Up 2-1 with one out in the bottom of the fourth, Bianco turned on a 1-0 pitch, ripping it down the line and over the fence for a solo home run. Bianco was mobbed by teammates at home plate, and Chesapeake led 3-1.
With Downin keeping the Gators guessing, the defense did its job behind her. In the sixth, after a Reservoir batter hit a one-out double to give the Gators a spark, Bianco, playing second base, snared a line drive and in one motion fired to Nutile covering second to double off the runner and end the inning. The Cougars charged into the dugout fired up with high-fives all around.
They produced another defensive gem the following inning, and this one clinched the region. Reservoir’s leadoff hitter doubled, but Wang, in right field, got the first out by tracking down a fly ball. The next Gator hit a fly ball a little bit deeper to Wang, prompting the runner at second to tag up and try to advance to third.
It was a bad idea. Wang’s cannon throw to third baseman Ali Pollack came with such speed that the runner didn’t even slide, instead skidding to a stop to try to induce a rundown. Pollack pounced on her with a tag for a game-ending double play.
“Kexin, she’s been in right field, she’s been unbelievable the entire year,” said Chesapeake coach Don Ellenberger, noting that she has thrown out runners at first base after would-be line-drive singles to right. “Don’t run on her. She’s been a machine.”
Wang said she has her own mindset in right field and that the team has gotten stronger on defense throughout the season.
“For me, when I’m out there, I’m constantly like, ‘Come on, hit it to me. I dare you,’” said Wang. “I’m talking to myself, and I just build my confidence up. But we practice so much defensively. We practice all these plays that we make. We’re confident in our defense.”
The Cougars will have to bring a full effort again in Tuesday’s state semifinals at Bachman Park, when they’ll face West champion Linganore, 8-5 winners over Manchester Valley. The Lancers “swing from their heels,” said Ellenberger—they have a strong offense—but Chesapeake is confident after breaking through to this point.
“It’s been a little while [since Chesapeake has won the region], but it’s always awesome,” said Ellenberger. “It’s part of where you set your sights in the beginning.”
Downin, a three-sport star in softball, basketball and soccer, said it’s great to go farther than she has with any other Chesapeake team.
“It feels awesome. It feels amazing because for the rest of my sports we were knocked off in regionals or before then, and since softball is my main sport I really wanted this to be the year, especially since it’s senior year, to make it this far,” said Downing. “We have a good defense, so I know if the ball’s hit, I have them to back me up. We’ve been hitting it better each game.”
With their confidence level high, the Cougars are enjoying themselves as they head into the weekend with more softball to play next week.
“We all believe in each other, and we know that we can do it, and we know we have the talent to do it,” said Downin. “As long as we do that, we’ll be good.”
May Is Time To Shine
The goal for any is to be playing its best at the end of the season, and Ellenberger, while always seeking improvement, said the team has grown throughout the year and is playing loose, with confidence.
“If you’d’ve seen us a month ago, it’s not the same team we have today, because we were a tight team,” Ellenberger said, noting the team’s youth with five freshmen and three sophomores. “So far, this team, as young as we are, has gelled.”
The Cougars celebrated their win by lining up in left field and performing a cascading wave of endearingly unpolished somersaults. Outfielder Skylar Storm put the exclamation point on the wave with a celebratory string of back handsprings.
Storm, a member of Chesapeake’s varsity cheerleading teams in the fall and winter, has achieved a unique distinction through team success. The Chesapeake cheerleading teams won county, region and state championships in both the fall and the winter, and the softball team now has a regular-season county championship, a one-game county championship and a region championship. Chesapeake Athletic Director Chip Snyder believes it is the only time any such feat—an individual student-athlete being a part of nine team championships in a single academic year—has been achieved.