By Rob Centorani
NIMMONSBURG _ This was not your typical Afton softball championship.
Three throwing miscues led to a three-run deficit in the opening inning on a hot, muggy Saturday at BAGSAI Complex, but the Crimson Knights held Deposit scoreless thereafter en route to a 4-3 victory in the Section Four Class D championship game.
"This one ranks up there," Afton coach Cindy Bostelman said, referring to the degree of difficulty associated with the Knights' 14th consecutive sectional title.
It shouldn't get any easier as Afton (20-4) will meet Section Three champion Stockbridge Valley (22-2) in a Class D state quarterfinal at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Gillette Park in Cicero. Stockbridge Valley, two spots behind Afton in the Class D state rankings, won the Section Three title Saturday with a 13-7 victory over Oriskany.
Tuesday's winner advances to this weekend's state semifinals back at BAGSAI.
Afton can thank its defense for getting this far, one that opened with a nightmarish first inning Saturday before wrapping its mitts around the crown following two standout plays in the top of the seventh.
The Lumberjacks' at-bats in the seventh started with a Winans-to-Winans special that somehow sent Toni Russo back to the bench.
Russo hit a hard shot into the hole that two-time reigning Daily Star Player of the Year Jessie Winans backhanded. Winans then showed off her powerful right arm, side-arming a liner toward her cousin, first baseman Ashley Winans.
Although the throw was up the line, Ashley Winans stretched to her right to make the catch while falling on the dirt and kept her foot on the bag to get the out.
"That hurt a little bit," said Ashley Winans, whose two-run double to right-center in the fourth made it 4-3 in favor of top-seeded Afton. "I surprised myself by getting that."
Korie Schmitz followed with an infield single off the glove of Afton pitcher Morgan Muller for seventh-seeded Deposit (13-8). Mackenzie Martin entered as a pinch-runner and it appeared as if the Lumberjacks were in business when Tara Matson dropped a flyball into shallow right field.
Charging right fielder Abbie Martin fielded the ball on one hop, though, then threw to first just in time to get the second out.
"That was such a good save by my cousin Ashley, and Abbie's play _ I called it before the game," said Jessie Winans, who finished 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI. "I said, I bet you're going to get someone out at first,' and she did."
Catcher Amber Lynn secured a foul pop by Kristen Matthews for the final out, and the Knights celebrated on the field as they've done on an annual basis since 1995.
Some might say all Afton has done over the last 14 years is beat up on average to below-average teams. But those naysayers would have a hard time explaining Afton's 6-5 victory over Horseheads on April 26 during a tournament at Maine-Endwell.
That's the same Horseheads team that beat Binghamton, 3-0, on Saturday in the Section Four Class AA final. In a championship game that started around the time the Class D final began, Horseheads used the same battery against Binghamton that Afton faced April 26.
"It's like anything, you can't always keep winning," Bostelman said. "It's a great feeling and I'd like to say we're going to win forever, but you're waiting for someone to come in and play just a little bit better than you and I hope I don't find them."
Afton nearly found that team Saturday in Midstate Athletic Conference Division II rival Deposit (13-8). And if anyone was below-average, it was Afton in the first inning.
The Lumberjacks' three-run first started with Lindsey Wagner's line-drive single into right field on the first pitch from Muller. Emily Cecere bunted Muller's second pitch about 5 feet in front of the plate. Lynn fielded it, but her throw went wide of Ashley Winans and allowed Wagner to reach third.
Melissa Martin then bunted toward first. Ashley Winans fielded it and looked Wagner back at third before holding the ball, giving Deposit bases loaded with none out.
Chelsea Russell followed with a grounder to second baseman Stephanie Parsons, who opted to go home. Her throw to Lynn was about a second late as Wagner scored for a 1-0 lead.
After Muller (19-4) struck out Brittany Stanton, Russo grounded to third baseman Hannah Westfall. Her throw home was low and to the right of Lynn, and after the ball caromed twice off the backstop, two Deposit runners scored to make it 3-0.
"I think that after the beginning of the game, we realized we had to get some hits," said Muller, whose two-hitter included three strikeouts and no walks. "They got on us early and we had to get back in the game."
Muller retired the next 18 Deposit batters, throwing first-pitch strikes to 15 of them and often tying up the Lumberjacks with inside pitches early in the count.
"I was trying to get ahead in the count because obviously, you want to get the first strike," said Muller, who has allowed three hits in three sectional wins. "It gets in the batter's head."
Afton's offense then slowly began to chip away at the deficit.
The Knights scored in the bottom of the first, when Jessie Winans drove in Kailee Granger with an infield single. Right fielder Kristen Matthews dropped Muller's one-out fly to right-center before Granger came in as a pinch-runner. Granger moved to second on a passed ball charged to Russell and took third on a wild pitch by Melissa Martin, then came home when Jessie Winans beat the throw to first on a grounder to shortstop Wagner.
In the third inning, Ashley Winans drew a leadoff walk and Jessie Winans followed with a high fly to shallow center. Center fielder Stanton got a poor jump and the ball dropped in for a single that left runners on first and second.
Left fielder Russo then turned in arguably the best defensive play of the game, backhanding Lynn's deep shot on the run and stopping two steps short of the fence.
"It was a phenomenal play and she's been doing it all year," Deposit coach Ed Swartwout said of Russo's catch, which saved at least one run and robbed Lynn of an extra-base hit.
Afton did not leave the inning empty-handed, though, as Parsons followed with a single to shallow left on an 0-2 pitch. Her hit scored Ashley Winans to cut Afton's deficit to 3-2.
Two Deposit errors in the fourth helped the Knights take the lead.
With one out, Stephanie Sherman reached on a fielding error by second baseman Matson. Muller then bunted in front of the plate, but Russell's throw to first sailed high. Sherman reached third and Muller went to second on the error. Ashley Winans then doubled into the right-center field gap to make it 4-3.
"I was just trying to worry about myself because I wasn't hitting so well and then I saw it and just hit it," said Winans, who struck out and walked in her first two at-bats.
Said Swartwout: "I think you always know three might not be enough against them. They're so strong and formidable on offense. We also knew the Muller girl has a tendency to get stronger as the game goes on. She fires it in there, gets the corners when she needs to and she has a great defense behind her."
Afton 4, Deposit 3
SECTION FOUR CLASS D
at BAGSAI Complex
7-DEPOSIT (13-8) 1-AFTON (20-4)
ab r h bi ab r h bi
Wagner ss 3 1 1 0 Sherman lf 3 1 1 0
Cecere 3b 2 1 0 0 Muller p 2 1 0 0
Me Martin p 2 1 0 0 Granger pr-ph 1 1 0 0
Russell c 3 0 0 1 A Winans 1b 3 1 1 2
Stanton cf 3 0 0 0 J Winans ss 4 0 3 1
Russo lf 3 0 0 0 Lynn c 3 0 0 0
Schmitz 1b 3 0 1 0 Mulieri pr 0 0 0 0
Mc Martin pr 0 0 0 0 Parsons 2b 3 0 1 1
Matson 2b 3 0 0 0 Westfall 3b 3 0 0 0
Matthews rf 3 0 0 0 Boudreau cf 2 0 1 0
Martin rf 2 0 1 0
Totals 25 3 2 1 Totals 27 4 8 4
Deposit 300 000 0 _ 3 2 3
Afton 101 200 x _ 4 8 2
E _ Lynn, Westfall, Matson, Matthews, Russell. LOB _ D 3; A 11. 2B _ A. Winans, J. Winans. S _ Cecere, Me. Martin, Muller. SB _ Sherman.
Deposit IP H R ER BB SO
Me Martin (L) 6 8 4 1 5 5
Afton IP H R ER BB SO
Muller (W,19-4) 7 2 3 0 0 3
WP _ Me. Martin 2. PB _ Russell.
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext, 209.