By Bruce Sayler
Advantages were few during the game, but the Belgrade Panthers were able to cash theirs in for a 7-2 win over Butte Central Saturday at the LaVerne Combo Invitational high school girls’ softball event.
The matchup of Class A titans was held at Stodden Park, which, with Father Sheehan Park, played host to the 28-team, two-day Combo ballfest. The contest ended after five innings because of the tournament game time limit.
“That was a bummer,” Butte Central head coach Kelci Thatcher said. “That was not our best game, that’s for sure. We had errors and we left runners on base.
“We have to learn to start and to finish games against good teams.”
Belgrade did score early, but needed to rise again after falling behind 1-0 to the Maroons. The Panthers started the game with leadoff batter Skylar Neubauer drawing her first of three walks, then scoring two strikeouts later on a double to left field by Ty Atwood.
BC pitcher Teresa Piazzola closed the half of the frame with another strikeout on the way to six for the game. She wound up with a four-hitter and was charged with five walks.
“There were some tough calls,” Thatcher said. “Teresa pitched a great game, but she didn’t get the calls on the corners she usually gets. She needs to get those against good-hitting teams. They didn’t go our way, but that’s life.”
Butte Central snared a two-run lead in the bottom of the second inning. Taylor Wahl walloped a triple to right-center field that barely missed clearing the fence for what would’ve been a home run. Panther right fielder Skylar Neubauer fell into the fence trying to catch the flyball. Kassidy Criscuolo delivered Wahl home with a single up the middle, then scored on a base hit to center, by Kloie Thatcher after a strikeout and an error.
The Maroons were unable to score again, though they smashed a number of “at-’em” balls, searing line drives that smoked directly into waiting Belgrade fielders’ gloves. Shawnee Hjelt pasted two such blue-darters, one stabbed by Belgrade second baseman Khiala Rollins and one by shortstop Jordan Branch. Wahl stacked a triple and a double.
The Panthers were good, offensively and defensively, and pitcher Shania Neubauer fanned four batters without issuing a walk, though she gave up six hits.
Belgrade grabbed a 3-2 lead with two runs in the third. Anna Cox reached on an error and Skylar Neubauer walked to start the inning. Both moved up on a wild pitch. Cox scored the tying run one out later on a bunt single by Branch. Branch then dashed for second, drawing a throw from Maroon catcher Corbyn Holm. Branch was out on the tag by Thatcher, but Neubauer scored from third base on the double steal.
The Panthers cinched up the win with a four-run fifth inning. Cox was hit by a pitch and Skylar Neubauer took her third walk to begin the frame. Judy Taylor then lined a three-run homer over the center-field fence. An out later, Atwood clubbed her second double of the game, this one bouncing off the fence in left field. As Kindall Bethke swung at strike three for the second out, the pitch bounced toward the backstop. Holm’s ensuing throw to first was strong enough for the out on Bethke, but Atwood scored from third base.
The BC bats went quiet in the bottom of the inning, a one-two-three end to the game.
“I don’t think Shawnee can hit a ball in harder than she did,” coach Thatcher said, lamenting the shots smacked right at the sure-enough-handed Belgrade defenders. “Our nerves got the best of us the first couple of innings, I think.
“We hit the ball well. We just have to make sure to make good plays.”
Belgrade was runner-up to Frenchtown in last year’s state Class A tournament.
Butte Central (14-3) will close the regular season on Thursday at Southwestern A Conference opponent Stevensville in a makeup game that had been postponed due to bad weather, then will head to the state tourney in Belgrade, May 26-28, as the Southwestern A Conference champion and No. 1 seed.
Belgrade 102 04x x — 7 4 2
Butte Central 020 00x x — 2 6 1
Shania Neubauer and Kindall Bethke. Teresa Piazzola and Corbyn Holm. W — Shania Neubauer. L — Piazzola (12-2)
BELGRADE — Skylar Neubauer 0-0, Judy Taylor 1-3, Jordan Branch 1-3, Ty Atwood 2-3, Kindall Bethke 0-2, Shania Neubauer 0-3, Kalista Pachl 0-1, Sarah Krone 0-2, Anna Cox 0-1, Khiala Rollins 0-0.
BUTTE CENTRAL (14-3) — Kloie Thatcher 2-3, Shawnee Hjelt 0-3, Mollie Peoples 1-3, Corbyn Holm 0-3, Teresa Piazzola 0-3, Taylor Wahl 2-2, Kassidy Criscuolo 1-2, McKenzie Gallagher 0-2, Megan Michelotti 0-2.
Extra-base hits — 2B — Atwood 2, Wahl. 3B — Wahl. HR — Taylor.
Runs batted in — Belgrade 5 (Taylor 3, Branch 1, Atwood 1), Butte Central 2 (Thatcher 1, Criscuolo 1).