FAIRFIELD — The Van Buren and Fairfield high school softball teams had late leads, couldn’t hold them and paid the price in similar fashion.

Pekin did just the opposite. The Panthers responded when the need arose.

The Panthers turned a tight game in a blowout with a seven-run sixth inning on the way to a 9-2 victory over Chariton in the Fairfield Invitational Friday at Fairfield Middle School. Pekin (4-6) is the only team among the three locals to play for a shot at the title today, as Van Buren and Fairfield will begin the journey for fifth place.

“We’ve got some confidence in ourselves right now, so today should be fun,” said Pekin coach Shelby Blakely, whose team will face New London in today’s semifinal. “We hit the ball hard today and Chariton got flustered.”

The Panthers led just 2-0 until the sixth, when they scored five runs with two outs and sent 11 to the plate. Zoey Wright’s three-run inside-the-park home run made it 9-0, while Kylie Davis and Sami Greiner also had run-scoring hits earlier in the inning.

Davis pitched to contact, but the defense, which has been spotty for parts of the season, made plays. Davis struck out two, but struggled a bit in the seventh as Chariton had more base runners in that inning than the previous six together. A throwing error led to both runs for the Chargers.

“When Kylie hits her spots, moving the ball high and low, in and out, she’s pretty good,” Blakely said. “Our defense is finally starting to come together. I don’t think we’ve made more than one error in the last five games or so.”

The tournament hosts simply couldn’t outhit New London in a 6-5 loss. Fairfield fell behind 3-1 in the opening inning, but chipped away at the deficit before Hannah Simpson lashed a two-run single to right field to give the Trojans a 5-4 lead in the fifth.

However, Fairfield couldn’t get out New London’s Layney Loyd and Kara Kreiger, as both of them had a hand in tying and winning the game. Both came up with hits against Allison Rebling with two strikes and two outs in the fifth, with Kreiger singling in Loyd to tie it.

In the seventh, Loyd was down to her final strike with two outs before doubling off Coty Engle, then Kreiger doubled in Loyd to walk off with the victory.

Loyd and Krieger were a combined 8-for-8 with five doubles, five RBIs and five runs scored.

“New London has good hitters and they took advantage in some situations,” Fairfield coach Bob Bradfield said. “We battled back and got runners on base, but we still just left a few too many on, where one more hit might have given us a two-run lead.

“We still just have to keep working on hitting line drives,” he said. “When you can hit with two strikes like New London did, that’s a huge boost to your confidence.”

Van Buren seemed to have confidence after rallying from a 3-0 deficit after an inning against Clear Creek-Amana. The Warriors took a 5-3 lead in the third, with Chelsey Huff’s two-run double making it 4-3. A three-run fourth gave them an 8-5 lead and they appeared to be in control.

It didn’t work out that way as they left three runners on over the last two innings, and the Clippers chipped away, making it 8-6 in the sixth. An RBI double by Ainsley Schrock and RBI triple by Grace Bedford tied the game at eight, then Lydia Banwart pulled a single through the right side to score Bedford for the 9-8 win in the seventh.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of because Clear Creek has a lot of tradition,” Van Buren coach Randy Smith said. “We’ve been down early all year, but one thing these kids don’t do is quit. This is the first close one this year that we’ve lost.”

Huff and Lexi Jirak drove in two runs apiece for the Warriors, while eighth-grader Ally Campbell took a tough loss. The Clippers’ opening inning was set up by two errors.

Van Buren will face Winfield-Mount Union at 9:30 a.m. at O.B. Nelson Park, while Fairfield will face Chariton in the other consolation semifinal. Pekin will face New London in a 1 p.m. semifinal at the middle school. The winner of that game will face either Clear Creek-Amana or No. 8 (Class 2A) Wilton for the championship.

Bradfield has been down this road before; his teams have done big things in the past without winning their own tournament.

“We’ve kind of been all over the place in our tournament in the last eight or nine years,” he said. “It’s disappointing, but the offense’s job is to score more than the opposition, and we just didn’t do it today.”

Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury