POMFRET -- Howard jumped on four-time state champion McDonough for eight hits and five runs in the first two innings, including a fence-clearing, two-run homer by Stacey Swiney, and defeated the Rams, 6-3, for the Class 2A South region title yesterday.
The 11th-ranked Lions (16-6) will play North Caroline of Caroline County, a 3-0 winner yesterday over Queen Anne's, at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Randazzo Park in the state semifinals. Howard last made the state tournament in 1996, when it was no-hit by McDonough in a Class 3A semifinal.
The Lions, who a week ago were two outs away from being eliminated in the first-round, did almost everything right against their Charles County opponent, winners of three straight Class 3A state titles before taking last year's Class 2A championship.
Howard senior pitcher Kelly O'Neill, who stayed home Thursday because of strep throat, was effective despite not being at her best. She allowed seven hits, struck out five and walked one but got stronger as the game went on, retiring the side in order the last two innings.
The Lions committed two errors but kept McDonough from a big inning, something they couldn't do against Howard County teams when they started the season 5-4.
And then there was hitting. Howard's Kim Palmer sent Erica Bates's first pitch of the game deep in the hole at short for an infield single. Swiney, batting second instead of her normal third to get more at-bats, singled to right on Bates's second pitch of the game. Two pitches later, Sarah Berg singled to center, scoring Palmer.
O'Neill, who had two singles in the Lions' quarterfinal win, tripled to right-center, scoring Swiney and Berg. Bates, one of two freshman starters for McDonough, got the next three outs in order.
Howard scored two runs in the second on one swing. With two outs, Amber Slavotinek, replacing leadoff hitter Palmer, hit a chopper off the plate for an infield single. Palmer, the center fielder, was injured in the top of the first inning when a towering foul ball off the bat of O'Neill hit her just below the left shoulder as she ducked away. She iced the injury and returned in the bottom of the sixth.
Slavotinek moved to second on a wild pitch, and Swiney, a senior catcher, worked the count to 3-2. The next pitch landed well over the left-field fence, Swiney's fourth homer of the season, for a 5-0 lead.
What was Swiney thinking in that situation?
"That I haven't been hitting recently and I needed to get a solid hit," she said.
And what was the pitch she hit?
"I don't know," Swiney said. "It looked good."
McDonough coach Paula Roberts didn't know the fence's distance but said only one other player had cleared it in three seasons.
"That was just beautiful," Roberts said Swiney's blast. "It was well over the fence."
Swiney wasn't through. In the top of seventh, with her team nursing a 5-3 lead, she led off with a double off the center-field fence. She scored on Berg's single to center, the shortstop's third hit of the game.
"They definitely out-hit us," said Roberts. "They hit the ball harder, and hit them together."
McDonough scored single runs in the second, fourth and fifth innings. The Rams had opportunities to score more in each of those innings, but O'Neill and the Lions' defense came through.
McDonough had the bases loaded with one out in the second, but Bates popped up behind first base. Second baseman Lindsey Hasiuk made the catch and threw home to Swiney. McDonough's Kristen Harris tagged from third on the play but stopped halfway. Swiney threw to third base, and Harris was tagged out.
O'Neill struck out Sarah Tipsword with a runner on third to end the fourth inning.
In the fifth, with two outs and runners on second and third, Jessica Forbes' grounder headed toward center field. As Berg went far to her left, one run scored. But Berg stopped the ball near second base, saving a sure run. With the tying runs on second and third, O'Neill got Katie Bowling to pop out to second.
"Getting out of that inning was a big lift for us," said Howard coach Dave Vezzi.