Posted Online: April 27, 2013, 8:48 pm

Big 6 softball co-leaders remain tied after split

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By Steve Tappa, stappa@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Moline's Morgan Murphy stretches to make the play at first base, putting out United Township's Shannon Ballegeer in the sixth inning Saturday afternoon. In a showdown between the Western Big 6 Conference co-leaders in softball, UT claimed the first game 3-2, and Moline won the second 6-2 to remain tied with a weekend left in the league season.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
UTHS's Courtney Markin snags a fly ball from a Moline batter in the fifth inning of their game Saturday at UT. The Panthers won game one 3-2 while the Maroons won the second 6-2.
Moline softball coach Mark Gerlach has been preaching about the benefits of being a first-strike hitter lately to leadoff batter Kellie Smet.

"Good pitchers are trying to get ahead in the count,'' Gerlach explained, "so if you take that first pitch, it might be the only strike you see the rest of the at-bat.''

Smet showed Saturday she has taken that message to heart, and the sophomore's aggressiveness at the plate helped turn United Township's momentum from a first-game win into a doubleheader split between the Western Big 6 Conference co-leaders.

After the Maroons committed two of their four Game 1 errors in the seventh inning to hand over the opener 3-2, Smet led off Game 2 with a first-pitch home run, then repeated the feat in the third frame to lead the defending league champs to a 6-2 victory at the Panthers' diamond.

Moline (13-3) and UT (9-3) remain deadlocked atop the Big 6 at 7-1, each with one conference doubleheader remaining. The Panthers host Galesburg (6-13, 1-7) on Saturday and the Maroons visit Rock Island (7-9, 4-4) on May 8.

"It's not a layup,'' Gerlach said about the league finale. "They've played everybody tough and they gave UT a mighty scare. But at least the opportunity (for a league title share) is there.''

Smet saw to that, going 5-for-7 with two doubles, two homers and three RBIs, accounting for half of Moline's eight extra-base hits in the twinbill.

In the nightcap, Smet saw five pitches, homering on the first two, adding an RBI single on the third, and fouling off the fourth pitch before reaching base on a throwing error.

"I just tried to make solid contact. I didn't even know they were over (the fence),'' Smet said of her second-game heroics. "I've never hit back-to-back homers like that. The pitches were right down the middle, so I just took a swing.''

Jordan de los Reyes, who just missed a homer with an RBI double off the rightfield fence in the opener, also went deep in the nightcap. The Illinois State-bound slugger paired with Lecy Waldbusser, who also doubled in Game 1, for back-to-back roundtrippers to start the fourth inning and chase UT starter Heather Johnson (2-2).

"I thought after getting that first one, we'd come out with some big-time intensity to try and get the sweep, but we didn't do that,'' UT coach John Alonzo said. "Sometimes, though, when you start off with the first ball going over the fence, it deflates you.''

Moline hurler Alaina Hofmann (6-0) also saw to that. Courtney Markin spoiled a five-hit, complete-game, shutout bid with a two-out, two-run homer in UT's last at-bat.

However, Hofmann did allow UT's leadoff hitter to reach base in the first four innings, and the Panthers stranded eight runners, including five in scoring position.

"I don't think we played our best ball, so to get a win over those guys is pretty good,'' Alonzo said. "But we also made sure the kids understood we just can't come out and play again like we did in that second game.''

Moline also was kicking itself for missed opportunities after the opener, with the seventh-inning errors allowing Natalie Brown to reach base and score the winning run.

The four miscues led to a pair of unearned runs against Cassie Shaw (7-3), and Moline stranded eight runners and squandered a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the third.

"That was the worst game we played all year,'' Gerlach said. "We haven't made four errors in three games (combined) let alone two in one inning.It's really disappointing, too, because we've been hitting in situations like that. We just didn't do it (Saturday), and obviously you have to take your hat off to (UT hurler Brooke) Prior on that.''

In 11 innings of work, Game 1 winner Prior (7-1) allowed Moline's powerful lineup four runs and 10 hits, including three by Lexi Jenkins, who also made a couple of highlight-reel grabs in centerfield to take away UT hits.

Besides Markin, who finished 4-for-8, UT's offense also featured a pair of hits by Prior (RBI), Hailey Lenth (RBI) and Mackenzie Gustafson.