STERLING – Nerves of steel were on full display Friday afternoon in Sterling, most notably by Rock Falls junior Michaela Ward and Sterling freshman Lexy Staples.
The two pitchers dueled it out through 6½ innings in the tense rivalry game, played in an atmosphere more suited to the next time these two teams might meet – a regional title game.
But for every jam Ward wiggled out of, Staples and her defense had the answer. Lauren Fritz's first-inning suicide squeeze bunt turned out to be the difference in the Golden Warriors' 1-0 win over the Rockets.
"Getting that run across right away really calmed me down," said Staples, who scattered eight Rocket hits while striking out two and hitting a batter. "We knew Michaela is a great pitcher, and we thought we could try and kill them with small-ball. It worked out for us."
It worked out only once, thanks to Ward's ability to get off the hook. She struck out nine and walked four, allowing the one earned run and five hits in a complete-game loss. She stranded eight Sterling runners on base – seven in scoring position.
"It's Sterling, it's a bigger game than usual, so I knew I had to work harder and pitch my best," Ward said. "It helped a lot that my defense was back there making some good plays and great catches behind me, and I just tried to do whatever I could out there to give us a chance to win."
Though it was a pitcher's duel, the game wasn't without offensive excitement. Sterling loaded the bases without an out in the bottom of the first, but after Fritz's one-out RBI bunt, Ward induced a pop foul to third base to escape without further damage.
Ward (12-4) then pitched around runners in scoring position with one out the next three innings, before a strikeout to end the fifth after Karlie Mellott's line-shot double to right-center field – one batter after Nadia Trujillo's liner to the same spot was snagged by Rocket right fielder Destinee Schumaker.
Schumaker was shaded into that gap all game, and took away three potential Sterling hits by her positioning.
"I watched Sterling play LaSalle-Peru on Thursday, and I saw how LP pitched to Sterling and saw where Sterling's hits were going," Rock Falls coach Kris Nunez said. "I put Destinee out there, and if she's not there to make those catches, it's a whole different game."
Ward cemented her escape-artist status with a pair of strikeouts to strand runners on the corners in the bottom of the sixth.
"I don't really like games where I'm thinking, 'Geez, the game's on the line here' with every hitter," Ward said. "But we came out to play today, and we were all locked in from the start to the finish. This opened our eyes today, and hopefully we can play like this the rest of the season."
While Ward was weaving her Houdini act, Staples matched her for much of the game. She hit Paige Reynolds with a full-count pitch with two outs in the first inning, then stranded Ward on second after a one-out single and a stolen base in the the second.
A leadoff single, a sac bunt, a bloop single on the infield, and a groundout to second put Rockets on second and third with two outs in the third, but Staples induced a popout to Mellott at short to end that threat.
After a 1-2-3 fourth inning, Jenny Lawson doubled to lead off the fifth and went to third on Baylie Janssen's bunt. But Staples got one of her two strikeouts, then watched Kaylyn Booker's liner settle into the glove of right fielder Abri Hale for a lead-saving running catch.
"It gives me a ton of comfort to have that defense behind me," Staples said. "I never worry if the other team hits the ball, because I always think my defense has it. There's a lot less pressure on me to be perfect and not make mistakes."
Another popout to short erased a two-out single in the sixth, then things got a little hairy in the seventh. Schumaker led off with a single to center, but Fritz's snap throw to first picked off pinch runner Peyton Milne.
That turned out to be a game-saver, as Lawson and Janssen followed with singles that would have loaded the bases with nobody out. Instead, Chelsi Blair fouled off five two-strike pitches before Staples got her to pop out back to the circle for the second out, and she got a comebacker from Booker to end the Rockets' last gasp.
"Personally, I'd like to see a little more offense on our side in a game like this," Sterling coach Becki Edmondson said, "but our outfield made some tough plays look easy, and our infield was rock-solid as well. That gives Lexy more confidence out there, and it's exciting for us as coaches to see because we're such a young team."
Despite the loss, Nunez said she feels far better about her team than she did a week ago, when she was disappointed with a lackluster effort in a loss to LP.
"I walk away from this game thinking we're capable of beating any team when we put our minds to it," Nunez said. "We don't have any big powerhouse hitters, but when this team works together toward the same goal, we're pretty darn good. Hopefully, losing this close in a good rivalry game will make us hungrier if we see them again in regionals."
Sterling 1, Rock Falls 0
Star of the game: Michaela Ward, RF, complete-game loss, allowed 1 earned run, 5 hits, 9 strikeouts, 4 walks
Key performers: Lexy Staples, Sterling, complete-game shutout, allowed 8 hits, 2 strikeouts, 1 hit batter; Lauren Fritz, Sterling, game's lone RBI on first-inning suicide squeeze bunt
Up next: Sterling at DeKalb & Rock Falls at Stillman Valley, both 4:30 p.m. Monday