Sometimes in life, in order to succeed, you need to fall short a few times first.
The same can be said for sports.
Heading into what would be the final at-bat of an instant classic in Grant County softball lore, Kaela Robey had been in that situation twice before – against the same team.
In the 2017 Sectional 37 Championship, Robey had the last at-bat. She struck out, and Whitko won 1-0.
In the 2018 Sectional 37 Championship, Robey had the last at-bat. She struck out, and Whitko won 8-4.
But Robey did not let those two at-bats define her. Rather, they fueled her, pushing her to become a better softball player than she already was.
“I had a lot of growing to do the past two years,” Robey said. “If I was in my head, I wasn’t going to do well. But this game, and this year, I just blocked that out. Every time I go up there…it’s 0-0. See the ball, hit the ball, that’s exactly what goes through my head.”
And in the 2019 Sectional 37 Championship at Oak Hill High School on Thursday night, Robey again had the last at-bat. But this time, it was a much different outcome – one that will be remembered for years to come.
“This whole game, I was coming back for redemption,” Robey said. “In every at-bat, I was thinking ‘this is going to be it. This is going to be it.’ And finally it happened.”
With runners on first and second with one out in the bottom of the 12th inning, and a berth in the regional championship on the line, Robey delivered the biggest hit of her storied softball career, punching a single to left field and giving the Oak Hill Golden Eagles a thrilling 9-8 triumph over the Whitko Wildcats.
And even before it happened, Jenessa Hasty, who was on first base, had no doubt that is was Robey who would be delivering the game-winner.
“Once I got to first…and as soon as I saw her out there, I was like ‘she’s got it. She’s got it. She’s due,’” Hasty said. “She’s an amazing hitter.”
After back-to-back years of frustration and heartache, Robey’s big hit, combined with the steady play from all of Oak Hill’s seniors, carried the Golden Eagles to one of their biggest wins in recent memory.
“Kaela Robey as a senior – slowed the game down,” Oak Hill Head Coach Ben Johnson said. “She had a great mental approach to the game. She’s always been a great softball player knowing the game, but she had such a great mental approach to this game. She looked at me before that last at-bat and she said, ‘Coach, I got it.’ And I just smiled big.
“You knew it. When it hit that second bounce…everything slowed down for me. It all slowed down as I watched it go, and we got it. Kaela Robey got it for us. These seniors got it for us.”
Both offenses clicked early, as the two teams combined to score five runs in the first inning. Whitko’s Elizabeth Miller scored the first run of the contest on a pick-off attempt at second base, and Augusta Garr followed with an RBI single to give the Wildcats a 2-0 advantage.
That would be the only time the Wildcats would lead in the entire contest. In the bottom of the frame, Abby Shaw, Hasty, and Robey hit three straight singles, and Korinne Perkins capitalized, scoring Shaw on a groundout. On the same play, Hasty scored on a Whitko throwing error, tying the game at 2-2. Moments later, a routine grounder from Ashlyn Transier looked to be the final out of the inning, but another Whitko miscue scored Robey, giving the Golden Eagles a 3-2 lead.
Armed with the advantage, Oak Hill senior hurler Bayli Toy settled in nicely for the next three innings, giving up just one hit and allowing two baserunners.
Meanwhile, the Oak Hill offense continued to produce. In the third, Shaw, Hasty, Robey, and Perkins combined to put another three runs on the board. Shaw and Hasty reached on a walk and a hit by pitch, Robey followed with an RBI ground rule double, and Perkins laced a two-run single to increase Oak Hill’s lead to 6-2.
However, this game would not have gone on to be one for the ages without a little drama.
The Wildcats finally got to Toy in the fifth inning, scoring three runs on an error, a passed ball, and an RBI double from Guinevere Garr, forcing sophomore Julianne Gosnell into the game for the first time.
Throughout the latter stages of the contest, the Oak Hill defense made some remarkable defensive plays, and it started in the top of the fifth. After misplaying a pitch, Oak Hill catcher Lori Miller made a great recovery, flipping the ball to Gosnell who applied the tag at home for the final out of the inning.
Oak Hill restored a little bit of their cushion in the bottom half of the fifth. Hasty led off with a solo home run to center field, and a two-out RBI double from Kaleigh Hollars pushed Oak Hill’s advantage to 8-5.
But once again, the Wildcats had the answer.
After Gosnell and the Golden Eagles recorded the first out, Whitko came back with four hits – three of which were doubles – to tie the game at 8-8.
Despite blowing a four-run lead and a three-run lead, the Golden Eagles did not get rattled nor lose their composure. Rather, they continued to play for one another. Cheers from the Oak Hill dugout could be heard all around the softball complex, and for the final six innings, it served as inspiration for the entire team.
“A lot of that is our bench players,” Robey said. “Honestly, in the dugout, they are always cheering us on and keeping everyone happy. Everybody was zoned in. Everybody was like ‘we are going to win this game.’”
Toy came back in the game in the seventh, and pitched what would be one of six straight scoreless innings. Whitko did put two runners on with two outs, but Abby Shaw made the catch on a routine pop-up at second base, ending the threat.
Then, in the biggest game of her young career, Gosnell pitched the final five innings – and held the Wildcats off the scoreboard.
“It was five scoreless innings with a semi-state [team] last year and a final four [team] the year before,” Johnson said. “You’re looking at girls who every time they stepped up were like, ‘oh, we’ve done it before. We can do it.’ And my super sophomore there says, ‘well yeah, so can I. I can do it.’ I’ve got nothing but faith in her. It was awesome.”
Not only did Gosnell pitch five straight scoreless innings, she escaped jams in three of them. In the eighth inning, there were runners on first and third with two outs, but she induced a liner to Transier at first, ending the inning. In the ninth, Whitko put two more runners on with two outs, but runner interference helped Gosnell and the Golden Eagles keep the contest tied.
“We all have that confidence in her,” Robey said of Gosnell. “And when she gets that confidence going, you cannot stop her.”
But the best play of the night, besides Robey’s game-winner, came in the top of the 12th. After Whitko leadoff batter Emily Duggans singled to start the frame, she stole second base, and Miller followed with a hard shot to first. But Transier made the snag, and in a split second, she fired the ball over to Hasty at second, who tagged Duggans to complete a 3-6 double play.
“When [Duggans] got on, we knew she had some speed,” Hasty said. “And when she got to second, I was worried because we didn’t have any outs. But as soon as that ball was hit and I saw her take off, I knew we had a chance because I saw her get a big jump, and I knew she didn’t tag up. Ashlyn threw a perfect throw to me. It was perfect.”
The rest was history. Five batters later, Robey’s fourth hit of the contest brought Shaw home from second base, setting up a showdown with Southmont in the regional championship next week.
“Whitko is an amazing team,” Hasty said. “Their pitcher – she is stellar. I give all props to her. She did great tonight. But yeah, we definitely had that little itch. Our whole team pulled it out and did it.”
“It means so much, especially for the seniors. It means so much to them…because we finally got this,” Gosnell added. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”
Gosnell earned the win in relief, giving up 10 hits and just three runs – all of which came in the sixth – while striking out five in 6.2 innings of work. Toy gave up six hits and only two earned runs in the other 5.1 frames, striking out two.
Shaw, Hasty, Robey, and Perkins combined for 12 of Oak Hill’s 17 hits, together with eight runs scored and six RBI.
In one magical evening, Oak Hill laid their Whitko demons to rest. Now, they are ready for the next challenge.
“We learned a lot from this game,” Robey said. “We have to keep battling. We can’t slack. We need to stay hard, [not] quit, and keep it going the whole time.”