Liberty's season ends in the quarterfinals for the sixth straight year with a 4-1 loss

Nolan Meeuwsen has been coaching softball long enough to know that the game isn’t just about winning and losing.

That’s why he was struck by a particularly poignant moment — minutes after his Liberty softball team had been eliminated from the Class 5A state playoffs with a 4-1 loss to Pendleton last Friday — when his players stood in right field, arms linked a collective bear hug, not wanting to leave the field or each other.

After three months and 29 games together, the Falcons couldn’t stomach the thought of not being together anymore.

“It was evident to me that they didn’t want the season to end,” Meeuwsen said. “They stood in right field for about 10 minutes after the game with their arms around each other. It’s really rewarding as a coach when you see that type of spirit.”

Meeuwsen’s Falcons established a lot of program firsts this season — including most wins (22), most wins in a row (11) and most wins against 6A opponents (8) — but they ultimately fell short of the one first that everybody wanted: a trip to the state semifinals.

Instead, Liberty lost in the quarterfinals for the sixth year in a row, falling to No. 3 Pendleton on the road last Friday. And for the fourth year in a row, the team that eliminated Liberty from the postseason will be playing for a 5A state championship.

Pendleton (23-6) went on to beat second-ranked Hood River in the semifinals and will face Putnam (22-7) at 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Oregon State Softball Complex in Corvallis.

“The top eight teams are all quality ballclubs,” Meeuwsen said. “I think you could throw a blanket over all eight teams in the quarterfinals and say they had a shot at winning a state title. Unfortunately we just couldn’t quite break through.”

Liberty (22-7) had some chances last Friday against Pendleton, but the Falcons struggled to solve starting pitcher Hailey Kline, who allowed only four hits all game — two of them coming in the seventh inning, when Liberty scored its only run.

Meanwhile, Liberty pitcher Ashley Driscoll did a good job of keeping one of the state’s top offensive ballclubs at bay. Pendleton led all classifications with more than 30 home runs this season, and Driscoll was tasked with keeping the ball in the park on Friday. She did just that, scattering eight hits — none of them home runs — over seven innings while walking two and striking out two.

“We knew what we were getting into with their offense,” Meeuwsen said. “We had a strategy going in to sort of tickle the strike zone, and Ashley did a great job. She worked the zone north and south, east and west. We got pop-ups and flyouts, but nothing left the park.”

Pendleton drew first blood in the bottom of the third, getting a one-out double from Darian Lindsey, followed by two walks to load the bases. Lindsey scored on a sacrifice fly to make it 1-0.

It remained a one-run game until Pendleton broke through with three runs in the sixth.

“Going into the bottom of the sixth it’s 1-0 and it’s anyone’s ballgame,” Meeuwsen said. “But then they get three (runs) and now it’s 4-0 and it makes you have to press a little bit more.”

Liberty got on the scoreboard in the top of the seventh. Kelly Meeuwsen led off with a double and Paige Smotherman moved her to third with a sacrifice bunt. Meeuwsen came home to score on an infield single by Sophia Coalwell, but Kline buckled down in the pitcher’s circle and the Falcons couldn’t muster more than the one run.

“We had runners on and we were threatening,” Nolan Meeuwsen said. “One bloop and one bomb and we’re right back in it. We just couldn’t keep the rally going.”

The loss ended an outstanding season for Liberty, but left the Falcons hungry for more.

“We left there holding our heads high. I felt like we played as well as we could have,” Meeuwsen said. “But it still stings when you lose a quarterfinal game for the sixth year in a row.”

The Falcons will look to push deeper into the postseason next year, when every player returns except Driscoll, who graduates this spring as the winningest softball pitcher in Liberty history.

Meeuwsen said that while the ending wasn’t quite what he and his players wanted, it was still a successful season.

“A lot of good things happened this season,” he said. “There’s so much about this ballclub that has nothing to do with softball that’s really cool. This is just a great group of kids. They play the game the right way and they really reinvigorated me as a coach.

“I looked forward to every single day I got to spend with these kids and I think they felt the same way about each other.”

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