BELLAIRE - One out away from winning a battle of Ohio Valley Athletic Conference softball champions, the wheels fell off the St. John Central wagon Thursday afternoon.
Leading 2-0, the Class A champion Irish watched as Steubenville Catholic rallied for three runs with two outs in the top of the seventh to claim a thrill-packed, 3-2, verdict on sun-splattered Amanda's Field.
The victory duplicated the feat the top-seeded Crusaders pulled off last Saturday in winning the Class 2A title, 8-7, over Wheeling Central, also in their last at-bat.
AND THE PITCH — Steubenville Catholic Central pitcher ALex McComb delivers a pitch during the Crusaders’ 3-2 win over St. John Central Thursday in New Manchester.
-- Kim North
Both teams are now 18-3.
"When you get Steubenville Catholic and St. John together, that's two solid ball teams and two quality, consistent programs," longtime St. John Central head coach Jerry Magistro said. "You couldn't have asked for more tonight."
Veteran Steubenville Catholic head coach Jim DiCarlo echoed Magistro's thoughts.
"I have a lot of respect for St. John," DiCarlo noted. "Jerry does a very nice job with his program."
Hannah Absalom was sailing along despite a triple-digit temperature. The hard-throwing junior had only allowed a leadoff double to Maddy Gulan in the second before encountering the late-inning troubles when she seemed to be pitching on fumes.
She got a popup to herself for the first out and then recorded her 14th strikeout. However, she walked Fran Capaldi, the Crusaders' No. 9 hitter, on four pitches. Left-handed hitting Micca Mirabella, who hadn't hit the ball out of the infield in three prior trips to the plate, lined a 2-2 offering to deep left-center for a run-scoring triple. Sammi Giannamore then laced an 0-2 pitch into the same gap to tie the game at 2.
On the very next pitch, Taylor Clark, playing with a torn ACL, pounded a double to the fence in left that plated Giannamore with the go-ahead, and eventual game-winning, run.
"We've just done it all year long," DiCarlo said of the comeback. "We've had 10 close games, and we've won them all. I don't know what it is, but I think our kids do believe in what we're doing.
"I saw us battling. I thought if we could get one big hit, that could lead to another, and it did."
The loss spoiled a splendid performance by Absalom.
"Hannah is one of the top two of three pitchers in the Ohio Valley," said DiCarlo. "She knows how to pitch. She's just not a thrower. She can move it (the ball) in or out, up and down. I know she wasn't 100 percent tonight, but she still pitched a very good game."
"For Hannah to go out there and pitch like she did against a team like Steubenville Central, or anybody for that fact, in a game that wasn't a tournament game or anything, I take my hat off to her.
"She went out there and did what she had to do under those conditions. She hung in there for as long as she could."
The Irish, who have lost three times by a total of four runs, didn't give up as Absalom doubled over the centerfielder's head leading off.
With one out, Caitlin Sliva singled for the third time in the game as Absalom was held at third. After Sliva stole second uncontested and the second out was recorded, DiCarlo opted to intentionally walk Kristen Russell, who had already singled and doubled. The ploy worked as Alex McComb got a game-ending strikeout.
St. John grabbed the early lead as Kaydie Coppa singled leading off the bottom of the first. When the ball skipped past the leftfielder, she raced around to third. Morgan DeLuca's soft liner over short brought in Coppa.
Russell banged a leadoff double to left-center in the second. She scored on Cheyenne Harris's single to right for a 2-0 reading.
The Irish had plenty of opportunities to add additional runs, but stranded 11 runners on base, seven of those in scoring position. The left at least one runner on in every inning except the sixth, and left the bases juiced in the fifth and seventh frames.
Harris joined Sliva and Russell with multi-hit games as she singled twice.
Steubenville Central 3, St. John Central 2
Steubenville Central 000 000 3 - 3 4 1
St. John Central 110 000 0 - 2 11 1
STEUBENVILLE CENTRAL (18-3): McComb wp (8K, 2BB) and Gulan; Mirabelli T, rbi; Giannamore D, rbi; Clark D, rbi; Gulan D
ST. JOHN CENTRAL (18-3): Absalom lp (14K, 5BB) and DeLuca; Absalom D; DeLuca S, rbi; Sliva 3S; Russell S, D; Harris 2S, rbi