BATTLE CREEK - The Gladstone Braves were three outs away from advancing to the Division III softball state title game last year, but Clinton rallied with a walkoff hit in the bottom of the seventh inning.
This year, however, there would be no rally by Gladstone's opponent, the Springport Spartans, at Bailey Park.
On Friday, the Braves found themselves in the same predicament, a one-run lead and three outs away, but this time was different. The defense stepped up, Alison Austin stood tall in a 1-2-3 seventh and Gladstone advanced to today's championship game with a 5-4 victory.
Gladstone catcher Jordan Kowalski, left, makes a diving tag on Springport’s Hannah Baum on a pickle play near home plate during Friday’s Division 3 state semifinal game played at Bailey Park in Battle Creek. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Keith Shelton)
Gladstone (30-5-1) gets another crack at Clinton (42-1) at 10 a.m.
Braves catcher Jordan Kowalski came up big for the Braves, scoring Jordan Schwartz on a perfectly executed suicide squeeze bunt in the first inning. The Braves led 2-0 as a Katie Becker triple and RBI single by Schwartz scored the first run.
Springport (39-3-1) stormed back with three runs in the bottom of the inning as its hot bats chased Braves starting pitcher Christine Sharon before the first inning was over.
Manager Gerry Smith turned to his other ace, Austin, who got the Braves out of the inning with no further damage. Still, with Spartans sophomore Sam Bates on the rubber, many wondered how many chances the Braves would have to rally.
Bates, one of the state's top pitchers, allowed just three hits the rest of the way but was let down by shaky fielding as the Spartans committed five errors.
In the third, Gladstone tied it up after Becker reached on an error, followed by a Schwartz single and a walk to Kowalski to load the bases with none out. Nicole Sharon grounded out and Becker slid home, tying the game 3-3, grimacing and favoring her ankle as she did.