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D4 SOFTBALL FINALS: Unionville-Sebewaing wins 6th title on Rylee Zimmer’s game-ending triple play; ‘It was just instinct, honestly’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, June 15, 2019, 9:39 am

EAST LANSING — There’s a reason that coaches put their best, most instinctive athlete at shortstop.

And, boy, oh boy is Unionville-Sebewaing Area glad that’s where Rylee Zimmer was stationed on Saturday, when the senior pulled off a triple play to end the Division 4 state championship game with Kalamazoo Christian, sealing a 3-1 win over the Patriots.

“I’ve never seen a triple play in my life. That was the first time I’ve seen it,” Zimmer said. “It was instinct, honestly. … I just made the play that was right there. I just did what I was supposed to do, I guess.”

With two runners on and no outs in the seventh, the lead for USA (31-9) was looking a bit thin when Sammy Gano stepped to the plate for Kalamazoo Christian (31-9).

Ending the game on one swing of the bat wasn’t something that was going through USA coach Isaiah Gainforth’s mind.

“No, you’re thinking ‘That girl at first can’t score.’ And then you’re thinking about the leadoff hitter (Sydney Duong) coming up next, who’s an all-stater, stud. So a lot of things were going through my mind. I don’t think anything has set in right now. … I’m sure on our drive home, it’ll hit you. It’s one helluva story to tell. It’s just a great feeling,” the coach said. “Right when it was hit, I glanced, and saw that it was hit to our shortstop, who is our best athlete, and then I looked — lead runner, she was off; looked at one (first base), and she was halfway to second. I was like ‘Here we go!’ I think I was on the field before the final out. I mean, it was just — that’s when it kind of clicked. It was like ‘Uhhhh … YEAH!!!’ It was crazy.”

Gano laced a ball up the middle, but it glanced off the arm of USA pitcher Brynn Polega, and changed direction, heading right for Zimmer.

“I saw it hit off Bryn’s arm, but I think that was what made me able to slow it down a little more,” Zimmer said.

The lanky shortstop snagged it out of mid-air, calmly stepped on second base to double off the lead runner, then threw to first to double off the trail runner.

Bing, bang, boom. Game over. State championship.

“Chaos. I’ve never seen an ending like that in anything, whether it was Major League Baseball, whether it was college baseball. I’ve played a lot of things, and I’ve never seen anything transpire like that last inning did. I’m just glad we were on the winning end of it,” said Gainforth, who sprinted out on the field to celebrate, saw the ball lying in the pitching circle, and snagged it for a keepsake of the moment.

“I’m just glad that ball found my best athlete. She knew exactly what to do with it — bing, bing, bing, game over. She knew exactly what to do with it. It wasn’t ‘Oh, my God …’ That’s what an all-stater does. Players make plays. I don’t care what sport it is, players make plays.”

Zimmer is a three-sport star at USA, playing both basketball and volleyball. In the latter sport, she helped lead the Patriots to the Division 3 state title game, where they lost to Bronson.

Saturday’s win made up for that loss a bit.

“I think it does make up for everything, especially volleyball this year. We were so close. Softball, I guess we made it,” Zimmer said. “I’m just so proud, because this is what I’ve been waiting for since my freshman year. My sister, her senior year, played Kalamazoo Christian and they won it, and I was kind of doing it for her.”

As there often are at smaller schools, there was quite a bit of crossover between the volleyball squad and Saturday’s softball championship squad. Maci Montgomery, Nichole Schember and  Polega all played in that volleyball championship game, as well.

“However many months ago, they’re playing in the state championship match for volleyball,”  Gainforth said. “And I think they just understood the feeling that that game kind of left with them, and they — especially the seniors — made sure that it wasn’t going to happen again.”

The Patriots scored all three of their runs in the third inning.

The first run came home on an error, then a second on Polega’s RBI groundout. Delanie Pavlichek doubled home the last run.

Kalamazoo Christian’s lone run came on Reagan Broekhuizen’s RBI single to right-center in the sixth inning.

The championship is the sixth for Unionville-Sebewaing Area. The Patriots have won … and played in 13 semifinals in 14 seasons, advancing to the title game nine times.

What does this one mean?

“I don’t know. People ask, ‘How does a little public school in the Thumb continue to get down here, and not only that, have success?’ And I don’t know the answer. I don’t know a right answer to tell,” Gainforth said. “But you look around, and it’s always Red, White and Blue. You’ve got former champs here. I just told the girls before the game, people can’t take away you being a champion. Don’t let that team do that, because that lasts forever.

“We were on a mission. We were. We kind of steamrolled through the tournament.”