By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer
---- — PEKIN – A six-run comeback is a pretty tough task for any softball team to complete during the course of a season.
That concept only made Pekin head softball coach Bryan Marley chuckle Saturday at the end of the Panthers’ home softball tournament.
“That’s not even the biggest deficit we’ve faced this week,” Pekin head softball coach Bryan Marley joked.
But it would be the biggest deficit Pekin would have to overcome to avoid losing one of their three round-robin games. The Panthers spent Saturday playing the role of comeback kids, a role they’ve become somewhat accustomed to this season.
Twice on Saturday, the Panthers stepped to the plate for their last at-bat needing a scoring rally to avoid a loss. At some point in all three of their games in their home Pekin softball tournament, the Panthers found themselves behind on the scoreboard.
But no matter what the circumstances were throughout the day, all three of Pekin’s games ended with a Panther hitter putting the ball in play and a Panther base runner scoring a walk-off run. Cheyann Lankford brought home the first walk-off run, completing the first late rally for Pekin as a bases-loaded single snapped a 4-4 tie and scored Courtney Comstock with the first walk-off run as the Panthers rallied in the seventh to win 5-4 after starting the inning down 4-3.
Down 10-4 and facing the time limit against West Branch, Pekin made its second six-run rally of the week. Back-to-back fielding errors by Bears’ third-baseman Shannon Laing allowed the Panthers to force a sixth inning by tying the game at 10-10, where sisters Maranda and Madelyn Baker drove in the tying and winning runs in a 12-11 victory.
The final game wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but it did technically feature a comeback and a walk-off hit. After giving up a pair of first-inning runs to winless Harmony, Pekin scored 14-straight runs and finished a 3-0 day with a two-run double by Emily Bemis to put away a 14-2 win on a four-inning, 12-run mercy rule.
When all the excitement was over on Saturday, Marley could only sit back take a huge breath while wondering how his team did it again. And again.
“We had the lead against Van Buren, gave it back and won it at the end. We were going back and forth with West Branch and suddenly we found ourselves having to comeback at the end again,” Marley said. “That’s just what this team does. They’re kind of like a bunch of Cardiac kids, but this is a team with a lot of pride. We’re never out of a game and we’re never going to stop playing.”
“I knew it was going to be a good day for us,” Lankford said after sparking the Panthers with six hits on the day and a pair of pitching wins. “I knew we could do it. We’ve come back before. We’re confident we can comeback whenever we have to.”
Pekin put themselves in the position of being “Cardiac Cats” due to several defensive miscues. The Panthers continued to struggle in the field, committing 14 errors in their three wins leading to 12 of the 17 runs allowed by Lankford and Comstock to be unearned.
“I’ve told the girls a number of times this year to just imagine how much easier this would be if you would give away so many runs,” Marley said. “For us to be a better team, we have to stop giving away runs. You can’t do that and be lucky enough to come through with victories all the time.”
Pekin’s sixth error of the day directly cost them a chance to avoid a last at-bat rally against Van Buren. Instead of turning a Hanna Haynes groundout into the final out of a 3-2 win, the Panthers allowed the Warriors to extend the game in the top of the seventh which allowed Jordan Billups and Abby Rider to come up with consecutive run-scoring hits to put Van Buren on top.
Pekin, however, extended two season-long trends in the bottom of the seventh. Back-to-back walks allowed Peyton Atwood to deliver a game-tying single before Lankford stepped up three batters later to deliver a two-out single to center, delivering another comeback win for the Panthers and another close loss to the Warriors.
“As a team we fight through it together,” Lankford said after going 3-3 against Van Buren while reaching base five times. “That was a big deal for me because I’ve been struggling lately at the plate. To be the leader and step up like that is huge. I had a good day.”
Van Buren finished the day 1-2. After shutting out Harmony in their second game 10-0, scoring seven runs in the fifth to close the game out, West Branch shut out the Warriors 8-0 despite an 11-strikeout performance in the pitching circle by Taylor Muringa.
“It’s been the story of our season,” Warriors head coach Eric Speer said after watching his team fall to 6-11 on the season with their next game scheduled for Wednesday at home against Wapello. “It’s all about executing the fundamentals. If you don’t execute those, you can’t expect to win.”
The victory over the Warriors gave West Branch two wins in the tournament to go along with a 12-2, five-inning triumph over Harmony. The two victories featured huge performances by Laing, who hammered two home runs well out of Pekin’s softball field as part of a four-hit, six-RBI tournament heading into the contest with the Panthers.
Laing didn’t slow down against the home team, drilling a pair of RBI doubles while scoring twice to help West Branch open up a 10-4 lead. With the time limit looming in the fifth, Marley knew his team had just one more chance to avoid losing.
“I knew we had the right kids coming up,” Marley said. “We had the top of our lineup coming up and I thought if we could just get a couple of girls on base, then maybe we could start to create something.”
Five-straight Panthers reached after Lankford was retired for the first time in seven plate appearances, pulling the Panthers within 10-6. Emily Adam’s two-out hit cut that deficit in half, but the 10-8 deficit appeared like it would hold up until Laing, the Bears’ hero of the day, booted back-to-back potential game-ending groundouts that instead allowed Pekin to bring in the two game-tying runs.
“We had no idea that was going to be the last inning,” Lankford said. “When we came off the diamond and they told us it was time to use the international tiebreaker, that’s when we first realized we were down to the end of the game.”
With the international tiebreaker in effect, West Branch went back ahead on a wild pitch by Lankford in the top of the sixth. Back-to-back hits by Leslie Stone and Maranda Baker answered that score and opened the door for Madelyn Baker, whose grounder to short would be good enough to bring home Stone with the winning run.
The three wins capped a very special Pekin softball tournament. After having their game at Southeast Iowa Superconference north leader Highland rained out Monday, the 17-8 Panthers will next be on the diamond tonight for “senior night” against Louisa-Muscatine.
Besides honoring their seniors, the Panthers will also honor Marley. After 25 years as head coach of the Pekin softball program, Marley will step down at the end of this season to be able to watch his own children as they begin playing softball at Fairfield next summer.
“It’s amazing to think how far this program has come. We had a couple of seasons in my first five years here where we had one win and two wins,” Marley said. “We won more games (Saturday) then we did in two of my first five seasons. That’s how far we’ve come as a program. I just think it’s the right time to step away and be on the opposite side of the fence for a little while.”