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Defending state champs fall in quarterfinals

St. Helens scores an unearned run in the eighth inning to sink the Pioneers 1-0 in Friday's quarterfinal


by: SANDY POST: PARKER LEE - Sandys Alexandra Moss slides into third base with an attempted steal during Fridays 1-0 playoff loss to St. Helens. Between the embraces with coaches and teammates that followed Sandy’s 1-0 loss to St. Helens in the quarterfinals of the Class 5A state tournament, several Pioneers shot gazes through teary eyes at the banner adorning the centerfield fence. They all quickly looked away from the “2013 State Champions” fence-hanging after a second or two, perhaps not wanting to think about someone else raising this year’s banner.

But a few players eventually glanced back at the banner a second time, maybe realizing how tough it was to earn it a year ago. Still, the fresh sting of the loss eventually pulled their attention back to one another.

Sandy is learning the hard way what it feels like to come up short of the title, but head coach Kellie Wilkerson is confident the initial disappointment will fade when the players take a moment to reflect upon the good things they did over the course of the season, especially in Friday’s extra-inning playoff defeat.

“They fought. You can’t ask for more when they leave it all on the field,” Wilkerson said. “I am 100-percent proud of them. Every one of them was up, every one of them was in the game and every one of them wanted to win. You can’t take that away from them.”

Wilkerson was pleased with the performance of her senior stars in particular. Pitcher Sammie Byron gave the Pioneers a great chance to win the game as she threw seven shutout innings. She allowed just four hits in that seven-inning stretch and didn’t allow a St. Helens runner to advance past second base. Byron also smacked a one-hopper to the left-field fence in the fourth inning that went for a double.

Byron’s battery mate and fellow senior Rachel Rutledge likewise made a huge impact in her final game in a Sandy uniform. Sandy’s all-state catcher threw out three would-be base stealers to nullify almost everything the Lions were able to muster offensively against Byron.

“They were both outstanding,” Wilkerson said. “It makes this harder knowing they were so great.”

The Lions finally broke the scoreless tie in the top of the eighth inning. They got the first two batters on with a walk and a single. Byron got the next two hitters to pop up, after which another walk loaded the bases with two outs. Byron then induced a ground ball to shortstop Hailey Valitski. Valitski elected to go to third with the throw, but third baseman Hannah Holliday was playing in and couldn’t get back to the bag in time. Everybody was safe and St. Helens had a 1-0 lead.

Unfortunately for Byron, Rutledge and the Pioneers, St. Helens pitcher Mariah Mulcahy was at the top of her game and one run was all she needed. Mulcahy went all eight innings, allowing four hits and no runs. She fanned 11 batters without walking any. After the Lions scored their run in the top of the eighth, Mulcahy struck out the side in order in the bottom half of the frame to punch St. Helens’ ticket to the state semifinals.

“She is a smart pitcher and she has gotten better every year. I wish her and St. Helens all the luck in the world,” Wilkerson said. “Somebody had to win. This game was a coin flip and it didn’t fall in our direction.”

The Pioneers now have to face a future without Byron and Rutledge. Wilkerson said there is no way to replace them as players or as people, but she is already looking forward to next season. Sandy will bring back several contributors with significant playoff experience. Centerfielder Molly Nutt will be the premiere position player in the Northwest Oregon Conference next year, but second baseman Presley Turin – who had two of the Pioneers’ four hits against St. Helens – will also be a key piece. Valitski and leftfielder Maddie will also be major factors.

“I’m excited for next season,” Wilkerson said. “They are going to be excellent and they are going to work so hard to get another championship.”