FAIRFIELD – The final game of the opening day at the 41st Fairfield Softball Invitational was something of a reunion.
Coty Engle and Brooke Miller, former friends and classmates, shook hands due the pregame introduction. The two then spent spent the rest of the day trying to outduel each other in the pitching circle.
"It was kind of awkward because I haven't talked to her in awhile," Engle said of the pregame handshake with Miller, who now plays for Pekin. "We used to be teammates. She's gotten better at the plate. I knew she took a break from pitching, but she's become a good pitcher."
Engle, however, proved to be a little bit better both in the circle and at the plate. Engle racked up a career-high 12 strikeouts against the Panthers while connecting on three hits, reaching in all four trips to the plate against her former friend leading the fifth-ranked (4A) Trojans to an 8-2 win over Pekin, clinching the final spot in the Fairfield Invitational semifinals.
"When everyone started hitting the ball, it gave me a lot more confidence," Engle said. "It made me want to step up."
Fairfield (8-5) will be part of what could be a thrilling Saturday of softball on the home diamond of the Trojans with Van Buren County (10-2), No. 13 (4A) Clear Creek-Amana (11-2) and top-ranked (2A) Wilton (9-1) competing for the title. After a 5-1 win over Chariton, Van Buren County will face Clear Creek-Amana, a 10-6 winner over New London on Friday, in the first semifinal contest on Saturday at 11 a.m.
Fifth-ranked Fairfield will then take the diamond against Wilton in a battle of two teams hoping to return to the state softball tournament this summer. The semifinal winners will play in the championship game at approximately 2 p.m.
"It's good to have good teams here competing for the title," Fairfield head softball coach Bob Bradfield said. "It doesn't do us any good when we have a decent team to play three games in this tournament and not face a decent challenge. It turns out there we're going to get two really decent challenges on Saturday. We'll have our hands full."
Pekin (3-5) was poised to give Fairfield all they could handle after a deep fly out by Miller to open the game off Engle was followed by a double into the left-field corner by Hannah Lucas. Kendyl Noel delivered an RBI single to right, bringing in Lucas giving the Panthers a 1-0 lead.
"It was a little rough at the beginning," Engle said. "I could not throw a strike. My arm was getting really sore. I just wasn't warmed up right, but fortunately I had my defense behind. They saved me several times out there getting those huge third outs."
Engle singled in her first to the plate and came home to score the tying run when Hannah Simpson doubled off the fence in right center with one out. Pekin threatened to regain the lead after back-to-back hits by Claire Roth and Alex Parsons opened the second inning before Engle started a string of four straight strikeouts, opening a run in which the Fairfield sophomore retired 15 of 16 Pekin batters.
"When Coty gets ahead in the count, she'll get some strikeouts because she has a decent riseball," Bradfield said of Engle. "She hit her spots, got ahead of the count and get the riseball close enough to force the batter to swing. When you're a hitter and the count is 0-2, you almost have to swing at anything close to the plate."
Miller matched her former friend and teammate by holding Fairfield to a single run through the first three innings. The Pekin sophomore finally ran into trouble in the fourth, however, as a fielding error, a late relay throw on a fielder's choice and a walk loaded the bases with no one out.
After striking out Danielle Breen, Miller allowed Emersyn Manley to put the ball in play with one out allowing the go-ahead run to score on a fielder's choice at third. Bailey Hird added an RBI single up the middle, scoring Peyton McCabe, to put Fairfield up 3-1.
"There's so much confidence with our line-up. Leading off, I'm just looking to get on base each time," Engle said. "That's how it goes with our team. When one girl starts hitting, everyone starts hitting."
That continued over the next two innings. Fairfield broke the game open in the fifth with four runs on six hits, including the first of two consecutive run-scoring hits by Jenna Norris. Delaney Breen added an RBI double before McCabe struck for a RBI single as Miller's day came to a close with Fairfield suddenly ahead 7-1 in the fifth.
Engle was tough enough to get solid contact on as the game rolled along, striking out the side in the fourth before adding a fourth straight strikeout to open the fifth. Miller finally made contact with hopes of dropping in a single to start a Pekin rally, only for Fairfield's defense to step up as Breen raced in from center to make a running catch near the infield, recording the sixth of 11 straight outs by Engle and the Trojan defense.
"When my defense is making plays like that, it gives me so much confidence," Engle said. "That's what leads to those strikeouts. It's the confidence I have in my teammates to make the plays even if the ball is put in play."
Pekin will play two games Saturday in a three-team consolation round-robin tomorrow in Fairfield at O.B. Nelson Park that will open with a game between Chariton (5-7) and New London (3-10) at 9:30 a.m. Pekin will play Chariton at approximately 11 a.m. and New London at approximately 12:30 p.m.