Smyrna reaches softball state finals: Eagles blank Charter 8-0, face Appoquinimink Saturday for title

Smyrna’s Abigail Mace blasts a two-out pitch from Wilmington Charter’s Antonia Browning over the left field fence to put the Eagles up 4-0. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

SMYRNA — Smyrna High’s softball players are well aware that state tournament seeding means nothing once the game starts.

The Eagles learned that lesson the hard way a year ago when, seeded sixth, they were knocked off by No. 11 Milford in the first round.

This time, second-seeded Smyrna took care of business, blanking No. 11 Wilmington Charter, 8-0, on Thursday afternoon to advance to the DIAA state finals for the first time since 2011.

Kaelyn Press of Smyrna (right) is mobbed by her teammates after she hit a solo homer in the first inning to put her team up 1-0.

The Eagles (20-1) will face No. 4 Appoquinimink (20-1) on Saturday at noon at Lower Sussex Little League in Roxana as they try to capture the program’s second state crown and first since 1993. The Jaguars toppled top-seeded Caravel, 6-5, in Thursday’s other semifinal.

Smyrna coach Nicki Shirey said that 14-8 loss to eventual state champion Milford last May still motivates her players.

“The fire has been in their belly since the last game of last year,” she said. “They couldn’t wait to get back to this moment. And I think you can see that in the way they’ve been playing this year.”

On an afternoon when the Eagles hit three homeruns and collected 10 hits, they got the only run they needed when senior Kaelyn Press belted a solo homer to center in the bottom of the first inning.

“Oh my gosh, I haven’t been hitting that well for me recently,” said Press. “So that felt amazing. I needed that. I was so confident and comfortable. My team has my back so it was awesome.

Smyrna pitcher Jessica Anderson sends a fastball to the plate against Wilmington Charter.

“It’s really important to jump on top. If you don’t, the energy is a lot different. But when we jump on top of teams like this, we just keep carrying it and that’s what’s important.”

Smyrna gradually pulled away from there.

In the second, Abbie Mace lined a double down the leftfield line to score Julia Thuer. In the fourth, Mace smacked a two-run homer to left-center that doubled the Eagles’ advantage at 4-0.

Finally, Smyrna put the game out of reach with four runs in the fifth.

With a couple runners on base, Laiken Zay sent a hard-hit ball into the rightfield corner. The Force’s fielder almost made a nice running catch but the ball went off her glove right at the foul line.

The ball was ruled fair and Zay circled the bases for an inside-the-park three-run homerun that gave Smyrna its 8-0 advantage.

That eight-run advantage was more than enough of a cushion for Smyrna pitchers Jessica Anderson and Payton Dixon, who combined to throw a three-hitter with four strikeouts and no walks in the shutout. The two have now allowed just two runs in three tourney games.

With both teams playing their second game in two days, Shirey said it was nice to use two pitchers.

Julia Thuer of Smyrna scores from second base in the second inning on a teammate’s line-drive base hit to put the Eagles up 2-0. Wilmington Charter’s catcher applies a late tag.

“We knew we’re lucky to have two great pitchers to work together,” said Shirey.

Shirey was a player on Smyrna’s state championship squad in ‘93. She likes the focus of this year’s team.

“They’re in their zone and they’re ready for this last game,” said Shirey.

Charter was something of an underdog as the 11th seed. But there was no chance the Eagles were going to take the Force lightly.
Losing in the first round last season took care of that.

“That was a big motivating factor,” said Press. “I mean it was taken away from us just like that.

“We were confident but I think we were confident in each other — we trusted each other. We knew that anything could happen. They are a very strong team. We just had to stay humble — especially for games like this, because we hadn’t made it this far.”

Extra innings

This will be the 17th straight year that at least one Henlopen Conference team has reached the state finals. … Downstate squads have won 10 of the 16 titles in that run. … This will mark Smyrna’s sixth appearance in the softball championship game. … This is only the third time in the last 20 season that Caravel has failed to reach the state finals.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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