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Crook County erupts for four runs in the top of the fifth inning to take control of tight game and advance deeper into the playoffs

The Crook County Cowgirls knew that Friday's quarterfinal softball matchup at the McLoughlin Pioneers was going to be tough.

After all, the Pioneers had the third seed in the playoffs, and have a history of playoff victories.LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Caitlyn Elliott tags Micha Fortune out at home in the bottom half of the second inning of the Cowgirls' 6-3 win over the McLoughlin Pineers. The play, which was set up by a perfect throw from shortstop Aspen Christiansen saved a run and helped Crook County advance to the state semifinals where they will face Gladstone on Tuesday in Prineville.

McLoughlin won the state championship in 2014 and 2015 and lost a close game in the state championship in 2016.

However, the Cowgirls were up to the challenge, using a four-run fifth inning to take control of the game as they came away with a 6-3 win over the Pioneers to advance to the state semifinals for the first time in school history.

"Oh my god, there are no words," Crook County head coach Jessica Cross said following the game. "I'm speechless. I have head to toe goose bumps right now. I just couldn't be more proud of the girls and the composure that they held today. We are making school history."

Crook County took advantage of control problems by McLoughlin starting pitcher McKewnna Stallings to jump out to an early lead.

Crook County leadoff hitter Abby Dalton popped out to second base to start the game. Then Matney Searcy singled to right. Searcy went to second on a wild pitch before Aspen Christiansen, McKuenzie McCormick and Hailey Smith all walked, as Searcy walked home to score the first run of the game.

When Stallings' first pitch to Emma Ackley was called a ball, McLoughlin head coach Nicole Christian went to her bull pen, bringing in Sydney Earls to relieve Stallings.

Earls also got off to a shaky start, walking Ackley, to score the Cowgirls' second run of the inning. However, the Pioneers got out of the inning when Ashley Owens hit a sizzling shot down the third base line. Pioneer third baseman Micha Fortune grabbed the ball and fired to Mallory Copeland at home for the second out of the inning. Copeland then turned and hurled the ball to first, just barely beating Owens to the bag, ending the inning.

"This was a really tough crowd," Cross said. "They have some serious speed, and they have some amazing players that can put the ball down. They run the quickest offense that we have ever seen. We knew what to expect, and we knew that we had to come in in that first inning and we had to put pressure on them and we did that."

Fortune, the Pioneer's leadoff hitter, then singled on what had been called an illegal pitch. The ball stopped no more than 3 feet in front of Crook County catcher Caitlyn Elliott, but Fortune used her speed to beat the throw to first.

"We worked on preparing for their speed yesterday by having our runners start up there instead of at the plate," Crook County first baseman Emma Ackley said, pointing about 5 feet down the first base line. "And they were still slower than that one lead off girl, she was so fast."

Fortune stole second base, then advanced to third on the second illegal pitch call of the inning on Crook County starting pitcher McKuenzie McCormick.

Prior to Friday's game, McCormick had only been called for one illegal pitch all season.

McCormick then struck out Rachael Lyon for the first out of the inning. However, Fortune scored on a wild pitch to make the score 2-1. Ashlyn Marly walked and Copeland singled to left, putting runners on the corners.LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Aspen Christiansen catches a throw at second in time ot force out McLoughlin's Sydney Richwine.

Crook County left fielder Hailey Smith then made an uncharacteristic mistake as she misjudged a ball off the bat of Brooke Smiley, letting the ball fall just behind her.

Marly scored on the play, however, Smith quickly recovered and threw a strike to third as Searcy tagged out Britney Wells, who came in to pinch run for Copeland.

Smiley advanced to second on the play. Sydney Richwine then laid down a bunt, however, McCormick made a sterling defensive play, fielding the ball cleanly and throwing Richwine out at first to end the inning with the score tied 2-2.

"We have spent the entire season focusing on one inning at a time, one play at a time, one pitch at a time, and that's what the girls did," Cross said. "They knew that it was really early in the game and it was a brand new ball game. We tied that inning, but we had more innings to win because that's what we were focusing on is winning one inning at a time."

Earls retired the Cowgirls in order in the second, before McLoughlin threatened again in the bottom half of the inning.

With one out, McKenna Yensen hit a bloop single to right, just over the glove of a leaping Crook County second baseman Kalyn Martinez. Katilyn Slusarenko then walked. Yensen and Slusarenko advanced to second and third on McCormick's second wild pitch of the game. Then came perhaps the key play of the game. Fortune hit a hard shot to short. A charging Christiansen fired the ball to home where Elliot tagged Yensen out, saving a run.

The Cowgirls then got out of the inning as Lyon grounded out to McCormick.

Earls retired the Cowgirls in order again in the top half of the third inning.

The Pioneers threatened again in the bottom half of the inning, loading the bases as Copeland and Richwine walked and Faith Kelly reached base on an infield single.

However, once again, Christiansen made a great play, stopping a hard shot to short and throwing home for the force out and the third out of the inning.

"It just wasn't in the cards for us," Christian said following the game. "We left 11 runners on this game. Crook County came, they brought their A game and we just didn't execute, but for the four seasons, we've been one of the top teams in the state. We're still in the playoffs, and we're still one of the best eight teams."

It was Crook County's turn to make some noise in the fourth inning.

Smith doubled to right center field, then Ackley doubled to left center. However, a cautious Smith didn't leave second until the ball hit the ground, so Yensen, McLoughlin's center fielder, was able to get the ball to the infield in time to hold Smith at third.

Owens then hit a weak line drive to short left field where Slusarenko made a running catch.

Then, Martinez hit a weak ground ball to Earls in the pitching circle and Smith initially broke for home. Earls whirled toward third and fired the ball to Fortune, who made a diving tag of Smith. Ackley ran all the way to third on the play, thinking that Smith was going home, then retreated to second, thinking that Smith was safe. Martinez raced nearly to second, then had to retreat to first.

Earls then struck out pinch hitter Jordan Elliott to get out of the inning without giving up a run.

Fortune reached base on a bunt single in the bottom half of the fourth, then stole second. However, Lyon popped up a bunt attempt, which was caught by Searcy before Ashlyn Marly grounded out to short to end the inning.

Then came the decisive fifth inning where the Cowgirls exploded for four runs to break the game wide open.

Dalton walked to start the inning. Searcy then laid down what looked like a perfect sacrifice bunt. However, Fortune misfired on her throw to first, overthrowing Smiley at first.

With runners on first and second, Christian called time out and replaced Earls on the mound with Stallings.

Still struggling with her control, Stallings walked Christiansen on four pitches to load the bases.

Christian immediately went to her bull pen again, pulling Copeland out from behind the plate and moving her to the pitching circle.

McCormick then singled to right, scoring a pair of runs.

McCormick hit the ball so hard that Marly should have been able to throw her out at first. However, Marly's throw was off line and a hustling McCormick raced to second as Christiansen went to third.

Smith then hit a shot to short, and Richwine fired a strike to home. Christiansen attempted to retreat to third, but was caught in a rundown where Fortune eventually made a diving tag as Christiansen dove for home plate. The play by Fortune saved a run, however, McCormick advanced to third and Smith hustled to second.

Ackley then hit her second consecutive double, scoring Christiansen and McCormick to make the score 6-2. Owens then hit a ball to Copeland in the pitching circle, who threw to third where Fortune tagged Ackley out.

"I knew we were going to win after that rally," Ackley said. "Every inning felt really close because they are a good-hitting team and even though we weren't making any mistakes or anything, they were still getting runs. But we just focusing on making the plays. It's so awesome."LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - McKuenzie McCormick, Matney Searcy, Caitlyn Elliott and assistant coach Gary White celebrate following the Cowgilrs' win over McLoughlin on Friday.

Copeland finally got out of the inning as Martinez hit a ground ball to Richwine in the whole. Richwine then flipped the ball to Kelly at second for the easy force out.

Trailing by four runs, the Pioneers didn't go down quietly.

Copeland ripped a double to right to start the bottom half of the inning. Once again, Wells came in to pinch run for Copeland and advanced to third on McCormick's third wild pitch of the game.

McCormick responded by striking out Smiley, but Elliott dropped the ball, and Smiley raced safely to first as Wells scored on the play.

McCormick then struck out Richwine, however, once again, Elliott was unable to handle the pitch. She quickly recovered, throwing Richwine out at first, however, Smiley went to second.

The Cowgirls were able to get out of the inning without giving up any additional runs as Kelly popped out to center and Yensen grounded out to third.

The Cowgirls had a chance to break the game wide open in the sixth inning. However, a line shot by Dalton was speared by Kelly, who threw to first, doubling Jillian Denney off, ending the threat.

Slusarenko walked to open the bottom half of the inning for the Pioneers. Fortune then laid down a bunt and a throwing error left runners on the corners. Fortune then stole second before McCormick was able to retire the next three batters in order to end the threat.

Copeland retired the Cowgirls in order in the top of the seventh.

The Pioneers had one final threat as Richwine singled in the bottom half of the inning, but once again, McCormick was able to pitch her way out of trouble as they closed out the game for her 19th win of the year.

"I feel really good about how we played because usually we slow down a bit, and I don't think that we slowed down at all this game," Smith said. "I feel really excited because it's my senior year, and it's awesome."

McCormick finished the game with seven strikeouts but gave up an uncharacteristic eight hits, five walks, three wild pitches and two illegal pitches.

Still, Cross was extremely pleased with the way she performed.

"We really wouldn't be here without her," she said. "Seeing her fight through that strike zone today and seeing her hold her composure through that strike zone — that's an obstacle that you battle, but you can't control it. McKuenzie is working on focusing on the things that you can control, so she worked around it, and she fought back from it, and she just did an amazing job."

Meanwhile, the Cowgirls finished with seven hits in the game, including two each by Searcy and Ackley.

With the win, the Cowgirls improved to 20-5, while the Pioneers' season ends with an 18-7 record.

"We've just been battling a lot," a proud Christian said following the game. "Copeland just got off pneumonia, she's still not healthy, and we didn't even think that we would have her this week. We've got strep, just a lot of sickness, and we lost some family members to deaths this week, so our team's been battling a lot. But, that's my team, they just fight, they play for each other. I mean we don't even call it team, we call it family. I think that's the atmosphere that we've built in this town. Our crowd is awesome, and I can't stress enough that we are family and when someone is down, we are going to pick them up. That's our family out there, and we are not going to let them down."

Cross was equally proud of her team.

"Seeing the girls' hard work payoff is special," she said. "This is my first group of kids and to see all of their hard work over the last four years, and three years, and two years, and seeing them coming together in this moment and seeing what they are capable and how they believe in themselves, that's what it's about, that's why we coach."

The Cowgirls will host Gladstone, a surprise 3-0 winner over No. 2 seed, and defending state champion Banks in the semifinals on Tuesday, May 30, beginning at 4:30 p.m.

La Grande will play at Henley in the other semifinal game.

The two winners will meet on Saturday, June 3 at the Oregon State University softball complex in Corvallis at a time yet to be determined.

"Words cannot describe how excited I am," Searcy said. "Especially going into a game like this where this is a pretty intimidating crowd. But for us to battle through that and win is awesome. I think that this team by far has been the best team I've played on. We keep our heads in the game and we power through everything."

Crook County 6, McLoughlin 3

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