WELLINGTON — It was a meeting better suited for the state final rather than a district final — and heavyweights Hillsdale and Keystone didn’t disappoint.
The top-seeded Wildcats scored an unearned run in the bottom of the first and added an insurance run in the sixth to hold off third-seeded Hillsdale 2-0 in the Division III Wellington district championship game.
The tradition-rich programs have a jaw-dropping 36 Final Four appearances and 13 state championships between them. Hillsdale captured its seventh state crown in 2018. Keystone won the most recent of its six state titles in 2021.
“Being in the LaGrange community, a lot of people know softball,” first-year Keystone coach Gina Gibson said. “All we’ve been talking about the last few weeks is how loaded these teams are. It’s incredible.
“It’s amazing, the level of competition.”
Hillsdale ace Taylor Morgan and Keystone’s Delaney Peters were both as good as advertised. The Findlay-bound Morgan gave up four hits while striking out 10 without a walk. Peters surrendered five hits and whiffed 13 while walking one.
The difference came down to defense. Hillsdale (18-6) committed four errors while the Wildcats (23-2) were guilty of just one miscue.
“Both teams grinded it out and worked hard,” Hillsdale coach Hannah Moore said. “They had a perfect game defensively and we didn’t.”
The Wildcats dodged a bullet in the top of the first when Hillsdale’s Laci Huber drew a one-out walk before Mollie Goon launched a high fly ball to straight-away center field. Keystone center fielder Viv Cassell hauled in Goon’s moon shot at the base of the wall and Huber couldn’t advance. Belle Dalton followed with a solid single to center and took second as Huber beat the throw to third, but Peters retired Morgan to end the threat.
“We just couldn’t string anything together hitting-wise,” Moore said.
The Wildcats scored the only run they would need in the home half of the first. Jordan Owca singled with one out, stole second and scored when Hannah Gurich’s two-out ground ball was misplayed on the Falcons’ infield.
Hillsdale’s next scoring opportunity came in the top of the third when Huber launched a two-out double. She was stranded, however, when Gurich hauled in a hard ground ball off the bat of Goon and threw to first for the out.
The Falcons threatened again in the fourth when Dalton singled to left and moved to second when the ball skipped past Keystone left fielder Charlee Hudak. Peters retired the next three batters, stranding Dalton at second.
Hillsdale’s best scoring opportunity came in the fifth when Kennedy Fickes lofted a one-out, opposite-field single to right and Jacey Sermulis followed with a bunt base hit to put runners at first and second. Huber followed with a smash to third that Gurich snagged for the second out before Peters took care of Goon.
The Falcons’ final scoring opportunity came in the sixth when Dalton was hit by a pitch to start the inning. A fielder’s choice off the bat of Morgan erased Dalton before Peters recorded a pair of strikeouts to end the threat.
Keystone added a valuable insurance run in the home half of the sixth. Gurich led off with a single to left before Cassell belted a two-out triple over the head of Hillsdale left fielder Lillian Amend to plate Gurich.
The rest was up to Peters, who retired the side in order in the top of the seventh to send Keystone to its 35th district title.
“I can’t say enough about Delaney right now,” Gibson said. “You would not see a difference between her first pitch and her last pitch. She knows the weight that is on her and she just doesn’t ever let it get to her out there on the mound.
“She … really just allowed us the opportunity to put together some things on offense by holding back a really tough Hillsdale offense.”
Keystone advanced to an impossibly loaded Canton regional field. The Wildcats, who were ranked sixth in Division III in the final coaches state poll, will play No. 2 Warren Champion — a nine-time state champ — in the regional semifinal at 2 p.m. May 24 at the Willig Softball Complex. The late game features fifth-ranked and two-time state runner-up South Range taking on defending Division II state champ Triway.