SHADYSIDE - River has won a school-record 25 softball games this season, but none of those victories is more cherished than the one it picked up Monday.
The third-seeded Pilots (25-3) navigated their way to a 3-1 triumph against top-seeded St. John Central (19-5) in a Division IV co-sectional final at Mead Township Park.
With the victory, coach Dave Wright's team ended the Irish's dominance in the tournament. While the Pilots will be headed to their second district tournament in three seasons, St. John was denied a 13th trip in 14 years to New Philadelphia.
River shortstop Hayley Bowers makes a throw to first against St. John during action at Mead Township?Park. The Pilots beat Irish, 3-1
"This is a special win," an emotional Wright said. "(St. John Central's) Hannah (Absalom) pitched as well as I've ever seen her pitch. It took us until the sixth inning to get our bats warmed up a little bit.
"I'm proud of these girls. They deserve it. They work hard all year. They really deserve it."
Trailing 1-0 entering the top of the sixth, River had mustered only a two-out single in the second by Mikayla Cieszeski off St. John Central's ace, Absalom.
That all changed as Madi Taylor's sinking liner to center skipped off the grass and past the Irish fielder as Taylor raced to second. One out later, winning pitcher Monica Curtis blasted a 3-1 pitch to the fence in right-center as Taylor scored easily.
An out later, Mackenzie Marshall laced a single down the third base line that chased home courtesy runner, Brissa Marshall, with the go-ahead run, 2-1.
The Pilots would add to their margin in the seventh. Cieszeski lined an 0-2 pitch down the rightfield line for a double, and Brissa Marshall entered as a pinch runner this time. After advancing to third on a passed ball, Marshall sprinted to the plate when the first pitch to Landyn Ramsay was in the dirt and eluded Irish catcher Cheyenne Harris. Marshall was able to get to the plate just ahead of the diving Harris for an all-important insurance run.
"That was some aggressive baserunning by Brissa," Wright said. "But that's why she's in there."
St. John Central, which took a 1-0 lead on Absalom's two-out RBI single in the third, threatened in the bottom of the seventh. Kate Lovinski struck out leading off against Curtis, but the ball was dropped and Lovinski raced to first. Sydney Helms followed with a slow roller to the right side of the infield that was misplayed as runners were on first and second.
"It got a little scary there," Wright said. "That should have been two outs and nobody on."
Curtis induced an infield popup after getting a fielder's choice for the second out. Taylor Lowe's flyball to center settled into Taylor's glove as the Pilots' dugout erupted in celebration.
"This is a big win for us," Curtis said. "It's nice to help our seniors continue their careers.
"It got a little nerve-racking, but we held together and got the win."
Curtis, who fanned five, walked two and allowed three singles, was surprised when her coach gave her the ball to start the game instead of senior Gabby Goudy, who one-hit Frontier in Saturday's win.
"I was a little nervous, but it didn't take long for them to go away," Curtis said with a smile.
The pitching maneuver also surprised veteran St. John Central coach Jerry Magistro.
"We planned, in the short time we had, for the Goudy girl," he said. "I scouted (Goudy) Saturday and then we get someone else thrown at us. That throws you off, but we just didn't come out and get that key hit when we needed it."
Despite the loss, Magistro had high praise for River.
"There's no doubt about it. They are a good team," he said. "I take my hat off to them and wish them all the luck. They've got a lot of good players and coaches."
He also praised his young squad, which loses only one senior, Absalom, who finished with 14 strikeouts - including 10 of the first 11 outs - and no walks. She gave up five hits, four in the fateful sixth inning. She also had two of the three Irish hits.
"What can you say about that girl," he said. "She did everything we asked of her for three years. In my opinion, she's not only one of the best players in the Ohio Valley and St. John Central history, she's the best Division IV player in the state of Ohio, as well.
"We've had a lot of really good players here, but she's definitely one of them.
"We've got everyone back but her, but it depends on the girls coming back if they are going to be healthy enough to play," he added. "Due to everything we went through this season, these freshmen, and we had a lot of them play all season, got to play in a game like this, and hopefully, we got this far, but what's it going to take to win next year and not have this taste of losing.
"These girls aren't used to this. It's going to be a weird feeling not going to New Philadelphia next week."
River will make that trek Tuesday, May 20 to face the winner of Wednesday's matchup between defending state champion Strasburg and Newcomerstown. The district semifinal will begin at 5 p.m. and be played at Tuscarawas Catholic Central High School's Art Teynor Athletic Complex.