While the Northeast softball team continues to struggle offensively,senior pitcher Kristy Zulka appears to be back to her familiar, dominating form.
But which factor will override the other?
Yesterday, it was Zulka's mastery on the mound and an Ericka Shade bases-loaded grounder in the bottom of the seventh that enabled thesecond-seeded Eagles to escape with a 1-0 victory over No. 3 Chopticon of St. Mary's County in the Class 2A Region III semifinals.
Thethree-time defending 2A state champions travel to top-seeded Frederick Douglass of Prince George's County for the regional finals at 1 p.m. Saturday. Douglass defeated No. 4 Fairmont Heights, 9-3, in yesterday's other semifinal.
Held to three hits through the first six innings, Northeast (16-3) loaded the bases in the seventh on an error, a Nicole Meister single and a walk. Shade followed with a grounder toBraves second baseman Veronica Emerson, whose throw home did not beat the sliding Heather Isaac.
Isaac had led off the inning with a pop-up that Chopticon pitcher Tammy Showalter misjudged and dropped.
"They never gave up, they kept trying, and finally, it paid off," Eagles coach Lynn Pitonzo said.
Besides Isaac's scoring the game-winner, the most welcomed sight for Northeast was Zulka's performance. She allowed two hits -- singles in the fourth and fifth innings -- struck out 11 and did not issue a walk.
Zulka retired the first 10 and last eight batters she faced, and prevented the Braves (13-6) fromadvancing a runner past second base. It was a stark contrast from her last outing, May 8, when she gave up 14 hits in a 5-0 loss to Chesapeake.
"I think I've got all my speed back -- hopefully," said Zulka, who now wears braces on both knees and no longer bats. One of herinjuries occurred over the summer, the other during a 4-3 loss to Glen Burnie on April 17 that snapped the Eagles' 64-game winning streak.
"My knees feel OK. They ache and hurt and everything, but they're good enough," she said.
Pitonzo said, "Kristy finally looks on."
Which means opposing batters are kept off the bases.
"She warmed up very well," said senior catcher Kelly Tibbs.
"Her first fourinnings were great. She started slacking off a little bit, but I kept getting on her and she came back and started pitching the ball the way we wanted. Her pitches were moving real well."
Showalter was just as effective, though her numbers didn't quit match Zulka's. She allowed four hits, walked four and struck out three, and even escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the fifth.
Isaac led off the fifth with a walk, and Jen Kisiner and Meister followed with singles. Stacy Reynolds attempted to bunt across Isaac, but Showalter fielded the ball cleanly in front of the mound and threw to catcher Janeene DiMatteo for the force at home.
"If that had gone where it was supposed to go, it would have scored the first run. The first-base line was wide open," Pitonzo said.
Shade lined out to right fielder Clare Stoudt, who made a nice shoestring catch, and Tammy Kuebel grounded to third to end the rally.
"I didn't understand why we had such a problem hitting her. She's not as fast as half the people we've faced," Shade said.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game and we couldn'tcome out lightly, and we didn't," said senior shortstop Stephanie Lazor. "We just didn't hit the ball again. We've been practicing all week."
Not to worry. Shade saw to it the Eagles wouldn't let anothergolden opportunity pass.
"All I kept saying was, 'She's not goingto strike me out. I'm going to hit the ball.' I was hoping for one in deep right, but I'll accept what I got," Shade said.
Having lostthree games this season, Lazor said the Eagles have something to prove -- "that we can get to the states again, no matter if we're 21-0 or 18-3."
They're one game away from doing just that.