A memorable softball season dissolved swiftly for Howard High School.
Howard, the county's most surprising team, rolled into the Class3A Region I playoffs at top-seeded North Carroll (Carroll County) Thursday carting a truckload of momentum. The Lions, who had won nine of 10 games to forge an unlikely tie with Centennial for the county championship, had finished their regular season with back-to-back shutouts.
Somebody must have forgotten to warn North Carroll (15-4) about the fourth-seeded Lions. The Panthers halted Howard's season with a fast, clean 7-0 victory that looked like so many Howard wins this year in its efficiency.
North Carroll pitcher Michelle Ament, for instance, looked entirely hittable all day, much like Howard pitcher Andrea Nolan has looked all year.
Yet all Howard could manage were fivebase runners -- a walk, two fourth-inning singles, and two harmless Panthers errors. The frustrated Lions only struck out three times.
North Carroll's offense collected the timely hits that have characterized Howard this spring. The Panthers had a modest total of six hitsoff Nolan, but three went for extra bases.
Designated hitter Sheri Martin crushed a two-run double that capped a four-run third inning, giving the Panthers a 5-0 lead. Kristi McCulley's homer in the fifth made it 6-0.
Howard's struggles also carried into the field. TheLions, whose defense was the key ingredient in their 13-6 season, committed four errors, leading to two unearned runs.
North Carroll, meanwhile, turned several strong plays to ice their 90-minute workout.
Left fielder Kim Piccione threw out Patty Miller, who tried to score from second on a two-out single by Holly Stover in the top of the third inning. Stover's hit would be Howard's last. Third baseman Ronda Renfro then made back-to-back outstanding plays on grounders in the sixth.
"They're a good hitting team, but I don't think they were that much better than us," said Nolan, who didn't pitch badly but struggled early with her best pitch, the changeup. "If we had played the way we played in our last two games, we would have won. Now I knowhow it feels on the other side."
Nolan, who threw every pitch forHoward the last two seasons, walked two and struck out two in addition to giving up six hits. And she paid dearly for some control problems in the third, after North Carroll had used a walk, a stolen base, the first Howard error and a fielder's choice to take a 1-0 lead in the second.
Vickie Jackson led off the Panthers' third with a walk.She advanced to second on Jenny McDermott's (2-for-4) single, then scored on a single up the middle by Sandra Johnson. McCulley then drove in the third run with a fielder's choice, before Martin doubled down the left-field line, driving in two runs to blow the game open.
Ament allowed only three base runners after that, two on errors, and retired Howard in order in the fourth and sixth innings, while dealing the Lions their first shut out of the season.
"It was one of those days when we hit a lot of pop-ups and easy ground balls, and when we hit it well, we hit it right at somebody," said Howard coach Dave Vezzi. "Andrea couldn't find the plate with her changeup and she was going to too many 3-1 counts. When you can't find the strike zone with your pitch, you're in trouble. They pretty much ripped into her after that.
"It was a tough way to end the season, because we've played so well. They beat us the way we've been beating other teams."
Vezzi, who guided the Lions from the middle of the pack into first place this year, will watch just two players graduate, Stover and Nolan. Most of his starters will still be underclassmen next year, so Vezzi sees a solid foundation on which to build. His first priority will be to find someone to replace the invaluable Nolan on the mound.
Nolan, for one, plans to check up occasionally on the Lions.
"All season long me and Coach Vezzi pounded it into people's heads that we were a good team. The entire team worked hard and improved this year," said Nolan, who will attend Washington College in Chestertown next year. "I'm going to come back and watch them next year."
In other Thursday semifinal action, third-seeded Centennial used six timely hits and a three-hit effort by pitcher Lindy Mellendick to upend second-seeded Liberty, 7-1.
The Eagles (15-5) won their ninth straight game and advanced to yesterday's Region I final at North Carroll (pastthe Howard County Sun deadline).
Kelly Butler drove in three runsto lead the Centennial attack. Mellendick walked one, struck out six, and took a shutout into the seventh inning.
Third-seeded Mount Hebron, which won two one-run games to wind up the regular season -- the final game 5-4 over Glenelg on a booming, seventh-inning home run by Dawn Thomas -- advanced to yesterday's Class 2A Region II title game with a thrilling, 4-3, extra-inning victory over second-seeded Overlea.
This time it was catcher Brandee Eckstrom who supplied the heroics with a solo homer in the ninth inning.
Thomas then finishedthe game with a two-hitter, as the Vikings (13-6) advanced to the finals against Patapsco.
The winners of yesterday's regional championship games advance to this week's state tournament at Upton Field inAnne Arundel County.
Finally, third-seeded Glenelg was eliminatedin Class 2A Region I action Thursday by second-seeded Watkins Mill, 3-2.
The Gladiators were without shortstop Lory Wineman, who is attending a religious retreat, and first baseman Jodi Brown, who has a fractured hand.
Glenelg got a solo homer from center fielder Shannon McCartney and had two runners on with one out in the seventh. But Lisa Martin and Lauren Doyle struck out.
"If you're going to go, that's the way to do it, with a little bit of drama," said Glenelg coach Chuck Struhar.