Meghan Luebbert sets the tone with a first-inning triple

All the hype entering Sandy’s semifinal game against West Albany was about how the Bulldogs had a phenom left-handed pitcher, Julia Smith-Harrington, who had been mowing down teams all season.

If the Pioneers were supposed to be intimidated or scared, no one told them.

Sandy pounced on West Albany without delay and rode its early momentum to a 3-1 win and a place in the state championship game.

“We were really excited for this game and couldn’t wait to get going,” Sandy pitcher Sammie Byron said. “Our minds were really focused and into it. We were right where we needed to be mentally.”

Pioneer center fielder Meghan Luebbert set the tone for the whole game when she led off for Sandy in the bottom of the first inning. With no regard for Smith-Harrington’s reputation, Luebbert tagged an inside pitch deep into the right field corner for a triple.

“That hit was unreal. It was huge for us,” Sandy coach Kellie Wilkerson said. “She is a senior and a team captain and a leader. Once we saw that, a sense of relief went through the whole team. And I think it shocked them a little bit.”

The next hitter, Molly Nutt, bunted her way to first base and Sandy wasted no time in taking advantage of its two base runners. Nutt stole second and Luebbert took off for home on the throw. The West Albany shortstop fired home to try to get Luebbert, but the throw was late. On the throw home, Nutt took third.

A couple batters later, Sandy catcher Rachel Rutledge laid down a squeeze bunt to bring in Nutt. Rutledge was thrown out at second in her attempt to take the extra base, but she had done her job. Before the Bulldogs knew what hit them, they faced a two-run deficit.

The Pioneers struck again when Luebbert smashed another triple to lead off the bottom of the third inning, this time off the center field fence. After Nutt reached safely on an infield single, Sandy’s three-hitter Chelsea Spanier pushed home Luebbert with the Pioneers’ second squeeze bunt of the game.

Sandy wouldn’t score again, but with Byron on the mound, it wouldn’t need to.

Byron started hot by retiring the first seven West Albany hitters. She allowed just one hit in the first four innings, a slow roller down the third base line that only traveled about 30 feet. The Bulldogs got a runner to second in the fifth and sixth innings, only to leave them there.

In the top of the seventh inning, West Albany put some pressure on the Sandy defense and forced the Pioneers into a couple fielding errors. That gave the Bulldogs a run with two runners still on base. Sandy was one out away from advancing to the state championship for the first time in school history when West Albany leadoff hitter BethAnne Neuschwander came to the plate representing the potential go-ahead run. Byron won the battle and got Neuschwander to top a ground ball to shortstop Hailey Valitski who scooped it up and threw to first to end the game.

“I had no doubt that we could win this game,” Wilkerson said. “I couldn’t be prouder of these girls.”

Luebbert, Nutt and Byron all had two base hits to pace the Pioneers at the plate. In the pitcher’s circle, Byron allowed four hits and no earned runs. Sandy went on to defeat Hermiston, 1-0, to claim the school’s first-ever softball state championship.

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