Howell squeezes past Esman and Gull Lake, winning 1-0 to claim second straight regional title
HOWELL — Obligatorily, the team that will likely go into the record books for bashing balls 200 feet over the fence won big on a ball that went all of 10 feet.
AJ Militello’s third-inning squeeze bunt provided the only run Howell would need in Saturday’s Division 1 regional championship game, as Molly Carney and the defense made it hold up for a 1-0 win over Richland Gull Lake, and a second straight regional crown.
“The most fun. This is what you play for. I don’t care what record you got in the beginning of the season, this is what’s fun, just playing together as a team. … The energy is insane,” said Militello. “These games are the ones that are just fun. This is what we play for. I was ready to do anything, whatever I needed to contribute to my team, whether that was hit a home run, or laying down a squeeze. I’m happy to do it.”
The regional championship sends the Highlanders (34-3) on to quarterfinals at Chelsea at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, when they’ll face a Canton team they’ve beaten twice already this season.
“For sure (it’s what we play for). Just thinking about the rest of the tournament gives me chills,” Carney said. “It’s super exciting, and this year, it’s a little different going into the tournament not being underdogs, kind of being expected to do pretty good.”
But my, oh my was it not as easy as it might seem.
“I can’t even … of all the games I coached in my life, this one was insane,” Howell coach Ron Pezzoni said. “I’m ready to go throw up.”
All season long the Highlanders were bashing home runs, and will likely go into the record books as the single-season team home run champs, especially after shutting out St. Joseph, one of their closest remaining pursuers, 4-0, in the regional semifinals.
But they couldn’t get anything going in Saturday’s championship game, collecting just four hits, and none of them especially hard.
That’s a testament to the pitching of Lauren Esman, the Gatorade Player of the Year for Gull Lake (34-6-1).
“She’s been so good all year,” Gull Lake coach Kate Smith said. “That was her first loss of the year, and only giving up one run here against probably one of the top offenses in the state, just shows how good she really is.”
The Highlanders were bent on not letting Michigan-bound Lauren Esman beat them — she may have entirely taken their bats out of their hands with her pitching, but Howell returned the favor, taking her bat out of her hands by intentionally walking her three times in the game, then adding an intentional walk for her younger sister, Mandy, late in the game. That set up repeated bases-loaded jams for Carney.
“There has been situations where I’ve been nervous, but not this one. I knew if I threw my game, I’d be fine,” the junior pitcher said, noting she wasn’t nervous in the sixth, with the game hanging in the balance after Mandy walked, with Lauren looming in the on-deck circle. We had another at-bat left, if the game did tie up, and I knew we’d come through. No nerves. … I guess I’d rather that (bases loaded) then the shutout innings. Gives me more of a thrill, and makes the game interesting.”
Each time after the first instance, it set up a bases-loaded situation — in the third, fifth and sixth innings — to set up a force at any base.
That’s what had Pezzoni’s stomach churning, as it felt like the Highlanders were playing with fire.
“Yeah, I didn’t love the one when we put the little Esman on, and put the go-ahead run at second base with two outs, but I went out and talked to Molly and basically asked her, ‘What do you want to do?’ And she said ‘Let’s walk her, and go to the next one.’ Molly’s earned the right to throw to who she wants to, and that’s what we did,” the coach said. “But yeah, it worked out great.”
Each time it worked out, it boosted the confidence of the Highlanders.
“It totally builds confidence. We have total trust in Molly, and we love being in those types of situations, because we’re gaming, and we’re balling out. It’s just fun,” Militello said. “This is is what we always say: If we’re nervous, that means we care.”
For the Blue Devils, who left 12 runners on base, and were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position (the one hit was a flare to left field that nearly netted an out at third when the runner over-ran the bag), each successive misfire was just that much more frustrating, rather than give them confidence that they were about to break through.
“It can definitely go either way, because we had a lot more runners on that I expected against her, because we’ve struggled against her the last two years in regionals. But just couldn’t get quite through it. I was hoping it would give us some confidence, but we just couldn’t get the big hit,” Smith said. “We couldn’t get it. We had runners on all day. I guess that’s what happens. Their pitcher is really good, and we just couldn’t get that one hit. … It’s whoever can execute. That’s what we kept telling our kids. It comes down to whoever can execute. We didn’t and they did.”
Militello executed the squeeze bunt to perfection, bringing Rosie McQueen home from third with the go-ahead run in the third inning. It was something the Utah-bound senior has worked on.
“Probably not many (squeezes),” she admitted. “I’ve been working on it more as I’ve developed my speed. I enjoy doing it. I’ve been working a lot on being a faster type of player.”
The Highlanders kept up the pressure, trying to scratch together another rally with bunts, but couldn’t add to the lead.
“We’re a pretty good hitting team, and we just got (shut down). Sometimes we have to tell these kids, it doesn’t matter, you still find a way to win. Whatever it takes. I mean, we bunted a couple of times with two strikes today,” Pezzoni said, admitting that one of the lazy fly balls to the outfield was probably the Highlanders’ hardest-hit ball of the afternoon against Esman. “The funny thing is, after that one, I was like ‘OK, we’re on it. We’ll be OK. That was hit all right.’ … We didn’t hit anything worth a crap. The nice thing is, these kids worked their butts off all offseason long, and even these big monsters like (Maddie) Gillett and kids like AJ that have hit a bunch of home runs. These guys can run, they’re mobile. McQueen can run. Kara (Johnson) can run. We can do the little things.
“We talk about it all the time that somehow we’ve gotta put pressure on the other team. All season, it was home runs, and … I guess we’re a little small-ball team now.”