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Baserunning helps Tigers beat Bulldogs

ALLENTOWN - It’s an overlooked part of the game.

But in softball, it can be as vital as pitching, hitting or defense.

On Tuesday night in the semifinal round of the Colonial League playoffs, it was the key to sending Northwestern to Thursday’s championship game.

Aggressive base running by the Tigers resulted in a game-tying run in the fourth inning and the winning tally in the eighth as the No. 2 seed in the tournament edged rival Northern Lehigh, 4-3.

“We make no secrets about it,” said Northwestern head coach Josh Zimmerman. “That’s what we want to do. We want to be able to run when we’re out there, and we want to be able to make sure we put the pressure on the other team. If you’re not running around and causing havoc, it’s kind of an easy game to play.

“Our girls ... use their speed out there to keep them off balance ... Being able to base run is what wins a lot of games.”

Northwestern’s winning rally in the eighth started with a one-out walk to Abby Dunstan, who moved to second on a hit by Emma Freeman. Bulldog hurler Lilyanah Watt got Shelby Mitman to fly out to right, but Josephine Wehr hit a ball off Watt that caromed toward second baseman Marisa Maehrer.

While Northern Lehigh was trying to record the out at first - which it couldn’t - Dunstan never stopped running and raced all the way home with the deciding run.

“Absolutely not,” said Zimmerman about whether he hesitated sending Dunstan. “You’re coming down to it, and the opportunities are going to be few and far between ... We were able to stay aggressive, and able to push that run across.

“It took one hit, and one little weird bounce. Abby had me the whole way and she went without hesitation, and that’s what was able to win the game for us.”

It looked like the Bulldogs were primed for victory after their third inning in which they scored three times.

A walk, fielder’s choice, error and intentional walk to Jordyn Hemingway loaded the bases with one out. Tiger starter Freeman got a big strikeout for the second out, but Kaitlyn Stock shot a ball up the middle for a two-run single. Peyton Hoffman dunked a ball into shallow right for another RBI hit that pushed the lead to 3-0.

“It was a good jump, and it was a nice little cushion while it lasted,” said Nolehi mentor Kate Farber. “We continued to hit the ball well, they just made the plays.”

The momentum the Bulldogs built quickly faded in the home third, as the Tigers (19-2) managed to push across two runs. Izzy Akelaitis singled home Quinn Conrey, who opened the inning with a hit, while Marissa Christman’s fielder’s choice plated Sage Toman, who also singled.

“That was huge,” said Zimmerman of getting on the scoreboard. “We had to do a little bit of small ball in order to get that done. Credit Quinn, who got it started there ... We were able to manufacture some runs. When you get to this point in the season, that’s what you’ve got to be able to do.”

An inning later, the score was tied after Wehr came up big on the base paths.

Wehr reached second on an error and a wild pitch. With two outs, Toman sent a soft liner over the pitcher’s head toward second. The Bulldogs (14-8) were unable to get a hustling Toman at first, and Wehr continued running and slid home to make it 3-3.

“We have to score runs in order to win, so I knew that our bats were going to do it,” said winning pitcher Freeman. “They’ve done it all year. I knew that I didn’t have to worry about the three runs that I gave up there, and that we were going to pull through no matter what.”

Freeman pitched five scoreless innings after that third frame, giving her team a chance to come back. In fact, she didn’t allow a runner past first base following the three-run third.

“I thought Emma did a phenomenal job,” said Zimmerman. “We were debating back and forth (about taking her out, but) it seemed like she got stronger as the game went on.”

The Tigers will face Palmerton in the championship game on Thursday. “We love being at Pates,” said Zimmerman. “We love the atmosphere that’s here ... It’s just a fun place to be. We’re excited to be back here for another championship game.” Northern Lehigh will return to action in districts, where it is currently the top seed in Class 2A.

Northwestern’s Christman recorded her 100th career hit in the first inning, while teammate Akelaitis also posted hit No. 100 in the third frame.

The two third basemen - Northern Lehigh’s Hemingway and Northwestern’s Christman - made a number of stellar plays, including a line-drive double play turned by Christman. “Both of them (third basemen) made great plays,” said Farber. “They were game changers.”

PRESS PHOTO BY NANCY SCHOLZ Rylee McGinley lays down a bunt during the Tigers' Colonial League semifinal win over Northern Lehigh Tuesday.