HASTINGS — Sports fans hear the phrase so often, it's become cliché: "That game was a lot closer than the final score indicates." But Wednesday's opening-round game in the Class A state softball tournament between Norfolk and Gretna really was a lot closer than the final score indicates.
The Panthers trailed 3-2 in the top of the sixth and had loaded the bases. But a strikeout ended the threat and Gretna finally got to Norfolk starter Jessica Schmidt in the bottom of the frame, scoring seven runs and ending it, 10-2, via the eight-run rule.
"A lot of people are going to see that it was an eight-run game," Norfolk coach Derek Siedschlag said. "But we competed for those first five innings and played really good softball. We had a lot of chances early in the game. We had some baserunning errors and didn't quite get that big base hit when we needed it."
Norfolk lost a great chance to score in the top of the first. Payton Schnoor walked but later strayed too far off first base and was picked off by Gretna catcher Jenna Marshall.
Two pitches later, Norfolk's Taylor Schmidt smashed a double off the base of the fence. The hit may have scored Schnoor from first or, at the very least, the Panthers would have had runners on second and third with nobody out.
But the next hitter, Emerson Waldow, scorched a pitch right at the shortstop and Ava Borgman grounded out to end the threat.
Panther pitcher Jessica Schmidt struck out the side in the bottom of the first and Norfolk had a chance to score again in the top of the second.
But another baserunning mistake ran the Panthers out of another inning. With one out, Jessica Schmidt singled and her courtesy runner, Kaia Kollmar, stole second.
Then Tara Koch flied out to center. Kollmar tagged at second and sprinted for third, but the throw from center was on target and Kollmar was caught in a rundown between second and third.
Schmidt continued to work hard in the pitching circle. In the bottom of the third, the Dragons put runners on second and third with two out. But a wild pitch scored the runner from third and catcher Kylie Baumgard's throw to Jessica Schmidt, who was covering the plate, sailed high, and the other base runner scored to give Gretna a 2-0 lead after three innings.
Norfolk cut the lead in half in the top of the fourth. Waldow reached on an base hit. She went to second on Mylee Wichman's infield hit and advanced to third on a bad throw by the Dragon second baseman.
Waldow then scored Norfolk's first run on a wild pitch to make the score 2-1.
The strong winds played a big factor in the game and often made it difficult for the fielders to make routine plays.
In the bottom of the fifth, with Gretna still leading 2-1, the Dragons had a runner on first with two outs when Emma Schweigert hit what appeared to be a pop fly to the shortstop. But the wind forced the ball from left to right, and it ended up landing between first baseman Tara Koch and second baseman Waldow.
The ball then rolled in front of the bag at first into foul territory. It appeared as if no Norfolk player had touched the ball and, if so, it should have been ruled a foul ball. But the home plate umpire ruled it fair and the runner from first, who, since there were two outs, was running at the crack of the bat, scored to make it 3-1.
"The weather's kind of crazy," Siedschlag said, "but I told the girls, 'You're at the state tournament. You've been working all year long to get here and you've got to battle through it.' And Gretna had the exact same disadvantage as far as the weather goes.”
Norfolk rallied in the top of the sixth. With two out, Kierstyn Linn drove in Kollmar — running for Jessica Schmidt — and sent Koch to third. Schnoor then walked to load the bases before the threat ended when Taylor Schmidt struck out swinging.
That set the stage for the Dragons' seven-run outburst in the bottom of the seventh that was highlighted by a pair of home runs by Alexis Jensen and Faith Mills.
"I told the girls we could have done the exact same thing to them. A couple of base hits and you don't know what happens," Siedschlag said.
Wichman led the Panthers at the plate with two hits. "I just think about one thing: Watching it all the way," Wichman said.
The Panthers (28-15) fell to the losers bracket and were scheduled to have played in an elimination game on Thursday at 9 a.m. against Lincoln East (31-9), a 14-4 loser to Papillion-La Vista.
The Panthers and Spartans split a doubleheader earlier this season in Norfolk with East winning 4-3 and Norfolk winning 5-3.
Should the Panthers defeat East, they would play an 11:30 a.m. game against the loser of the winners bracket game between Lincoln Southwest and Millard North.
"We just said 'You've got to come back ready to go.' We've played them well. It's a good opportunity for us tomorrow to come back and battle back," Siedschlag said.
Norfolk 000 101 — 2 6 4
Gretna 002 017 — 10 8 2
WP: Allison McGee; LP: Jessica Schmidt; HR: (G) Alexis Jensen, Faith Mills; 2B: (N) Taylor Schmidt.