STATE BOUND: Fairfield knocks off Centerville 1-0 in D-I regional final

CINCINNATI — The Fairfield High School softball team is headed to the state tournament for the first time since 1991.

Megan Spence tossed a three-hit shutout, Adelyn Huey scored the game’s only run and the Indians knocked off the Centerville Elks 1-0 to capture a Division I regional title on Friday night at Indian Hill.

“That was probably the craziest game I’ve ever played in,” Spence said with a gleaming smile. “The adrenaline was so up the whole time. It was just so crazy. I knew that my teammates had my back the whole game. It was just so crazy.

“I still can’t believe it. We’re going to the Final Four. Like, no way. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and my coaches. It’s just a crazy experience right now.”

Fairfield (23-3) has now won 10 in a row and 19 of its last 20. The Indians will face Austintown-Fitch in a state semifinal on Friday, May 31, at 3 p.m. at Akron’s Firestone Stadium.

“Indescribable,” said Fairfield coach Brenda Stieger, who took over the program 28 years ago. “Getting so close so many times over the years I’ve been a head coach here and wondering if it was ever going to happen before I hung up these coaching shoes.

“Just thrilled. Just thrilled, excited, so happy for the program, so happy for these kids who have worked so hard this year. I’m kind of speechless.”

The last time the Indians reached the state tournament was in 1991, when they lost to Akron Springfield 8-1 in the semifinals.

Fairfield beat Centerville 5-2 in last year’s district final. The Elks, who were ranked seventh in the final state poll, finished the season at 25-5.

“I can’t think of anything that we would do different,” Centerville coach Wendell Hutchinson said. “Megan is an awesome pitcher. Our kid’s an awesome pitcher. When they’re throwing the ball where they’re supposed to, it just makes it tough. We weren’t able to square up enough balls to score. We had chances, we just couldn’t get that big hit.

“I loved their effort,” Hutchinson added of his squad. “I loved our energy. Our focus was there. Before the game I was talking to my daughter. I just don’t think there was any way we could have been more prepared for the game. We just didn’t get the hits.”

Spence, a sophomore, and Elks senior Hayley Arnold went toe to toe in the pitcher’s circle.

And neither one budged as both went the distance.

Spence’s stat line: three hits, no runs, five strikeouts, three walks.

Arnold’s stat line: four hits, one run, 10 strikeouts, three walks.

“I don’t think there’s any way in the world I would have expected to lose,” Hutchinson said of Arnold’s performance. “It’s a funny game. That’s why you play it. The favorite always doesn’t win. You can play great and make no mistakes and lose. That’s what makes this game so difficult. I love it, and the girls are going to hurt for a while.

“I don’t think we did anything wrong. It just didn’t happen for us.”

Fairfield senior catcher Karley Clark praised Spence’s effort in the circle.

“Megan’s amazing,” Clark said. “I’ve had the privilege of catching Megan since she was 7 or 8 years old and I was 9 or 10. So being able to watch her progression through these past couple of years has been a blessing, crazy, amazing and all the feels. I’m so incredibly proud of her. I can’t even put into words. She’s amazing, and here we are.”

Adelyn Huey doubled to lead off the bottom of third and reached third base on a wild pitch before Jillian Huey drew a walk.

Ava Hensley hit one back up the middle to Arnold, who threw it to third in an attempt to get Adelyn Huey leaning towards home. But Huey dove back in time to beat the tag to load the bases.

Abby Stanfield hit a sacrifice fly to center that scored Adelyn Huey to give Fairfield its 1-0 lead.

“Thankfully, this game was the first game in a while we were up the whole time,” Clark said. “We have a good team and we’re good at building each other back up and good at staying up even when things don’t necessarily go our way. We’re good at comebacks and just building each other back up and staying as a team.”

Hensley went 2 for 3 to lead the Indians at the plate, while Jillian Huey (1 for 2, walk), Stanfield (RBI, walk) and Adelyn Huey (1 for 2, run) also contributed.

Ardyn Hopf, Natalie LaDue and Olivia Castle collected the three hits for Centerville, which had a leadoff batter reach base in straight innings (third through sixth).

“We tried to play the same style we’ve played all year,” Hutchinson said. “For whatever reason, (Spence) just kept that ball up out of our reach. We just didn’t score. Hats off to them.

“They beat us last year in the district final, and they beat us this year. It’s kind of hard to think that you’re better than a team that’s beat you two years in a row — especially under pressure.”

Clark went down with an ankle injury trying to beat the throw on a groundout that ended the bottom of the fifth.

She hobbled off the field, got taped up and went back out to catch the final two innings.

“At that time, I was going to dive into first to try and make myself safe at first,” Clark said. “Then I stutter stepped, and I hit the bag with my right foot and then fell on my left ankle — and it popped. I’ve sprained it twice before, so I knew it wasn’t good. I told myself, ‘If I can stand on it, I can play on it.’ I only had two innings left. I just had to push through it.

“A lot of prayer. Prayer, and give me some Ibuprofen, and just tape me so I can’t feel my foot,” Clark described while being treated in the dugout. “So, I got some Ibuprofen. Our trainer is amazing. Brad (Fraser) is great, taped the crap out of my foot. And I threw a girl out. So, it worked.”

Hopf walked to start the top of the sixth but was thrown out by Clark on an attempt to steal second. Jillian Huey caught the throw from Clark and kept the tag on Hopf, who lifted her hand off the bag as she repositioned herself after the slide.

Hutchinson, who questioned the call, said it was a “critical play in the game.” That was the last base runner the Elks would get.

Stieger tipped her cap to Stanfield, who made a couple clutch putouts from third base that helped halt two of Centerville’s offensive threats.

“We talked about that after winning on Wednesday and just about making the steady play,” Stieger said. “You don’t have to dive. You don’t have to do anything spectacular. Those are great, but there are so many more basic plays. And Stan was great today down there. Anything that came at her.

“They had a good feel of this turf. We smash a lot of balls at them all day every practice. … They get a lot of balls. So much sometimes I’m like, ‘Don’t even throw it anymore. We’re just working on fielding.’ They just stay with it. They work hard, and that’s why we’re here.”

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