Stifling Sharon lifts Braves

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Ashley Hughes stood aside, hugged her parents and watched her team celebrate their 12th straight regional title after handing off the trophy. A daunting dozen, an awe-inspiring streak.

In the center of it all was senior ace pitcher Christine Sharon, celebrating her fourth regional title, adding to this prestigious Gladstone softball program’s legacy after a grueling day and a strong performance, pitching 14 innings in heat and humidity.

For Hughes, the Braves’ rookie manager, it’s her first. She had a smile just as wide as the kids she was coaching following the final out.

“It’s my first and it feels amazing,” Hughes said. “I can’t say enough about how these girls were already taught in the past about the game and their skills. I’m very proud to be their coach and to help them out along the way, but props to the girls. Their the ones that make the plays and give it everything they’ve got. They should proud of their efforts here today.”

Saturday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Middle School, the Braves kept their regional streak going strong, but it didn’t come easy. It required two close victories. Gladstone beat the host St. Francis Gladiators 3-1 in the semifinal before defeating Boyne City in a hard-fought 4-1 victory.

“The tight games were something we expected, just like the way the district tournament went,” said Hughes. “Nothing ever goes according to plan so you have to be ready to bring it when it comes down to it.”

In the title game, Boyne City struck first. Rainy McCune was hit by a pitch and Paige Hornbeck’s double scored her from first. That would be all the Ramblers would get but the game was still well in doubt until late. Boyne City pitcher Emma Shumaker, while certainly not overwhelming, seemed to throw the Braves off with her off-speed pitches. The Braves put nearly every ball in play, only striking out once, but if they didn’t line out, they popped up or flew out.

Boyne City would put runners on base in every inning but the second, but only advanced one more past first. In the top of the sixth, Hornbeck advanced to second after Kalelyn Banner was walked with two outs. Nothing materialized. That’s because Sharon was her usual dominant self on the mound. Sharon scattered five hits, walked two, hit one batter and struck out 10. The Rambler’s bottom of the order went 1-for-9 against Sharon with eight whiffs.

In the semifinal against St. Francis, Sharon struck out six and held the Gladiators (30-4) largely at bay. At the plate, Sharon reached base all seven times she came up to bat during the day, including getting Gladstone on the board in the title game with an RBI double that scored Mikayla Depuydt in the third inning.

Sharon had her struggles – she was talked to by the umpire for throwing an illegal pitch in the semifinal and seemed to waver a bit under the heat – but she never made a costly mistake and remained composed.

“In the first game, I had some issues,” Sharon acknowledged. “I got called on that illegal pitch, so I was kind of struggling not to pitch illegally,” she laughed. “The second game I came out and I just knew, this is the time, I’m here, and we’re going to do this, we’re going to win. So I set my mind to it and we did.”

After getting the final out against the Ramblers, Sharon was visibly spent, but happy to be holding the regional trophy for the fourth straight year.

“It was a little tiring,” she laughed. “But being my fourth year, it’s pretty awesome to say you did that, because not many people can.”

After putting girls on base in every inning, but with no result, Gladstone made its move sixth. Lexi Hongisto got on base with a lead-off walk. Jess Beaudry reached base on an error, advancing Hongisto to third and Morgan Kowalski’s sac-grounder scored Hongisto. Bridget Becker followed with a single and Anna Caramella then hit a sac-groundout of her own to score Beaudry. Depuydt then ripped an RBI double to increase the lead to 4-1.

Brooke Fouchia drew a walk for Boyne City in the seventh but Sharon struck out Jordan Weiss and got Schumaker to fly out to end the game.

“Sharon is a workhorse and a leader on this team. The girls look up to her and we have so much confidence in her on the mound,” said Hughes. “The weather was getting to everybody, but having to pitch two full games in the heat…she’s a leader and she knows what’s on the line. She was the one bringing everyone together and she was working flawlessly today.”

Against St. Francis, Gladstone broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the fifth. Sharon led off with a single and Hongisto drew a walk before Jess Beaudry hit a two-RBI single to give the Braves a 3-1 lead. That, and a beneficial call would be all Gladstone needed.

In the fifth inning, after knotting up the score at 1-1 on a Julia Hardy RBI single, a St. Francis runner was called for interference against Hongisto who fielded the ball. Two Gladiator runners crossed home plate on the play that was called back.

“It was the right call,” said St. Francis manager Mike Doriot, now in his 18th season and who earlier this season racked up his 500th victory. “It was a good acting job, but it was the right call. The fielder has the right-of-way, bottom line.”

Another call went against St. Francis in the first inning when Sharon was called safe at second on a steal attempt. Sharon eventually scored to give the Braves an early 1-0 lead.

“We had the girl at second in the first inning. It was a bad call,” said Doriot. “I don’t know how they missed that call. We would have gotten out of the inning with no runs. All we needed was one break. You have to be good and you have to be lucky. You need a break and we didn’t get one.”

St. Francis pitcher Lauren Cvengros who came on in relief, took the loss, her first of the season after coming in 13-0, including a victory earlier this season in a doubleheader split against Gladstone.

Boyne City advanced to the final after routing Tawas (22-8) 10-5 in the other semifinal.

Gladstone (25-2) advances to Tuesday’s MHSAA Division 3 state quarterfinal at Traverse City West where it will face Muskegon Oakridge at noon.