Last week, the postseason softball picture looked as puzzling as a Rubik's Cube. But after yesterday's 5-0 victory over Northeast, the puzzle started to unscramble for Coach Dennis Thiele and his ChesapeakeCougars.
Virtually every member of the defending state champion Cougars team is ready for the upcoming Class 4A state playoffs. With just Friday's game against North County remaining, the Cougars (15-3) virtually have sewn up the top seed in Class 4A Region IV.
"Right around this time, the kids catch the fever. They smell playoffs, and they start playing their best ball," said Thiele, whose third baseman, Nancy Yeager, played yesterday in only her fourth game since missing half of the season with mononucleosis.
"I said when Igot her back, my puzzle and all the pieces would fall together and that's what you saw here today. I didn't have it for a while and had Stacey Grokas, Natalie Black, Becky Thiele all playing third base and out of their natural positions.
"Now, I've got my outfield the wayI want it, and we've played a couple of games together against Northeast and Severna Park where we played near-flawless ball."
Led by catcher Grokas (4-for-4, with a double) and pitcher Amy
Jakubowskiand second baseman Thiele (both 3-for-4), the Cougars collected 14 hits against Northeast's Kristy Zulka.
Jakubowski nailed a first-inning RBI single to give the Cougars a 1-0 lead and hurled her way to her sixth victory in eight starts, with five strikeouts, three hits and two walks. Meanwhile, Zulka, The Anne Arundel County's Sun's Player of the Year, was coming off of an 11-strikeout, one-hit victory over South River but dropped to 7-2 with the loss.
"I was surprised we were able to hit that well off of her because she's really good andI have a lot of respect for Kristy," Jakubowski said. "We seem to come together in the big games, like Severna Park, when we really need it. But there's always competition between Northeast and Chesapeake because we're all rivals and we go hard at each other. It was our turnto beat them. We were due."
First baseman Stacey Matcuk punched athird-inning sacrifice fly to score Thiele for a 2-0 lead before Jaime Long stepped up to single in Jakubowski. Grokas also scored as a result of Long's shot, crossing the plate for the fourth run on a second baseman's error.
"Usually it's a one-run ballgame," said Grokas, whose fourth-inning RBI single scored Natalie Black for the final run. "My freshman year, we beat them on this field, 2-1, then they beat us two years in a row. I haven't been hitting, but I guess this wasthe day to turn it around."
The three-time defending Class 2A state champion Eagles (15-3) also were hoping to turn things around against the Cougars but blew two chances to score.
Northeast's Kelly Tibbs stepped to the plate with the game scoreless and one out in the top of the first. But she flied out to center fielder Stacey Necessary, who threw to Grokas and caught Stacy Reynolds trying to come home.
And Jakubowski had walked Jennifer Kisiner to load the bases in the fourth when Nicole Meister hit a pop-up back to her for the third out.
The game was Northeast's regular-season finale, and the Eagles -- who dropped a tough, 3-2 loss to Severna Park prior to the SouthRiver game -- had hoped to enter the playoffs on a better note.
"This game we didn't play like we played (against South River). This game, they beat us. We were up and ready to play," Northeast coach Lynn Pitonzo said.
Asked if hitting was the problem, she responded, "Very much."
The win had Thiele comparing the Cougars with past championship teams.
"This team is starting to look like what it did in '88 and what it did in '90 toward the end," he said. "Those years, we didn't put the undefeated seasons together, but we didn't need to as long as we're standing when it's all over."