For the first time since 2011, the McKinleyville High softball team is the champion of the Big 5 Conference.
But before the Panthers walked away with a sizable game-two victory, they had to overcome their first Big 5 loss of the season.
Heading into Saturday’s doubleheader at Eureka High, McKinleyville needed just one win to lock up a conference title.
The Loggers needed both, and took the first with an 8-5 victory — making the second game of the afternoon winner-take-all connotations.
It played closely for a few innings, and then McKinleyville poured in six runs in the fifth inning and another four in the seventh to secure a comfortable 10-1 win, and a Big 5 title.
“It’s a little surreal I think,” McKinleyville’s head coach Shanna McCracken said. “This has been our goal the entire way. The girls played through a lot of adversity this week but they know how to get the best out of each other. When they do, they can compete with anyone.”
On Saturday McKinleyville got the absolute best out of Mikayla Minton.
The pitcher, who has rarely started this season as the majority of McKinleyville’s pitching this season has been handled in dominant fashion by McKenzie Gonsalves, came into the game in relief of Gonsalves midway through the third inning in game one.
Minton would remain in the circle for the rest of game one and the entirety of game two, stepping into a role she had not occupied all season at the most crucial point of the year.
She handled it like a vet.
After Gonsalves gave up seven runs, six earned, on seven hits through the first three-and-two-thirds of game one Minton came in and, although McKinleyville would go on to lose, performed well, giving up just a single run.
In game two Minton went the distance, allowing only one run on five hits.
The junior didn’t have any strikeouts in game two, allowing her Panthers’ defense to clean up everything she let by. Of course, getting 10 runs from the offense didn’t hurt her effort.
“Mikayla has really come a long way,” McCracken said. “McKenzie struggled with her command today, which hasn’t happened yet this year. Mikayla did a great job stepping up and putting the team in a position to win. The defense did an excellent job behind her as well. I can’t say enough about how far Mikayla has come in the circle. We’ve seen growth every year for her but this was by far the most confidence she has exuded in the circle. It just goes along with the team having each other’s backs no matter what. McKenzie did a great job continuing to support her as a designated player.”
Hitting wise McKinleyville was lead by Ashley Ballew and Gonsalves in game two. Ballew went 2-for-4 in the win with a pair of runs scored and three RBIs. Gonsalves had two hits and an RBI.
Game one was controlled by Eureka’s pitcher Alexa Morehouse, who delivered a complete-game performance complete with six hits given up and four strikeouts. Out of the five runs scored by McKinleyville in game one only one was earned.
At the dish Makaila Napoleon and Karyn Jensen did the bulk of the damage for Eureka. Napoleon had a hit, a run scored and two RBIs while Jensen went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored.
Morehouse didn’t fair as well in game two, giving up nine runs, four earned, on 11 hits and no strikeouts before being relieved by Salina Socha-Wright in the seventh inning.
With Saturday’s split McKinleyville finishes the regular season 18-3 and first-place in the Big 5 at 11-1. Eureka takes second in the conference with an overall mark of 17-5 and a 9-3 conference record.
McKinleyville will be the No. 1 seed from the Big 5 in next week’s Charles Lakin Humboldt-Del Norte League Tournament and No. 2. Eureka will face South Fork in the tournament’s opening round on Tuesday while McKinleyville will receive a first-round bye.