By Josh Brown
PLEASANT HILL — Well, that escalated quickly.
With only a Saturday doubleheader under each team’s belt, two of the Cross County Conference’s top contenders and a pair of regional tournament qualifiers from a season ago — the rival Covington Buccaneers and Newton Indians — faced off in the new season’s first league games.
And the Buccs took advantage of some aggressive plays early and forced the action, as well as a couple of Indian mistakes, to take control, then Brooke Gostomsky and the defense fought off an Indian comeback attempt to hold on for a 4-2 victory in a big early-season matchup Tuesday at Newton.
For Covington (3-0, 1-0 CCC), which finished last season 28-2 and lost in the regional semifinal round, every game is a big matchup.
“We don’t get up for any team more than any other team. We just prepare the girls for the team we’re going to play next,” Covington coach Dean Denlinger said. “Every game is a big game for us. This was definitely a good win. A good win for the girls. They played hard early in the season.”
The young Indians (0-3, 1-0 CCC), meanwhile, wanted to see where they stood against the team that’s dominated their league in recent years. And first-year coach Mark Gibson was pleased with what he saw.
“I was excited for us to play Covington this early,” he said. “It’s always a big test for us. Covington is in the upper echelon of our league and has pretty much had our number for the four years I’ve been here. Honestly, today was about our girls competing against them and seeing how they stacked up. I was proud of them for not giving up. They fought probably the best team in our conference all the way.”
And while both teams have plenty of power in their respective lineups and can put runs on the board by the truckload, that never really came into play Tuesday.
Covington put pressure on the Newton defense early, leaving runners stranded on first and third in the first inning. In the second, though, a leadoff walk and stolen base by Justice Warner and a bunt single by Kara Schaffer put runners on second and third with no outs. Kristen Rappold struck out the next hitter on a foul third-strike bunt, but Megan Alexander and Arianna Richards dropped down back-to-back bunt singles that brought in runs to give the Buccs a 2-0 lead.
“We had a couple of suicide squeeze plays, had some nice small ball opportunities,” Denlinger said. “The girls played hard.”
“The way they beat us was the short game,” Gibson said. “Two suicide squeezes that we were not ready for. Our bunt coverage has to get better. They were prepared and ran the bases aggressively, and we have to be ready to attack the ball.”
And in the top of the third, the Buccs loaded the bases with no outs. After Newton pitcher Kristen Rappold forced a pop to short for the first out, Schaffer drew an RBI walk and Ashley Cecil hit an RBI groundout to make it 4-0. The Buccs tried to catch the Indians sleeping with a delayed steal of home during the next batter, but Newton was ready and recorded the final out of the inning at the plate.
“I saw an opportunity arise, and I took it,” Denlinger said. “I’m a risk taker. It’s what we do, how we play.”
Rappold shut the Buccs down from there, allowing only one more hit and two total baserunners over the final four innings. She finished with three strikeouts, five walks, six hits and four runs — and got help in the sixth with shortstop Madison Mollette doubling off a runner at first on a line drive.
Gostomsky, meanwhile, only allowed two baserunners over the first three innings and pitched strong the whole game. The first trouble spot she ran into was in the fourth, when a single by Rappold and a walk by Kacie Tackett put runners on first and second with one out. Gostomsky induced a grounder to third for the second out, but a bloop RBI single to center by Laura Oaks — the only run-scoring hit for either team that reached the outfield all day — put Newton on the board, trailing 4-1 after four.
And in the fifth, Brittany Oburn drew a leadoff walk, was bunted to second then stole third and scored on a throwing error on the play to get the Indians within two — but that’s as close as they would get as Gostomsky retired the final eight batters she faced to seal the game.
Gostomsky finished with three strikeouts and gave up four hits and three walks.
“Both teams are better hitting teams than they showed today, I think,” Denlinger said. “We’ve still got a long way to go. We made some mistakes on defense, had some mental errors. But it’s still early in the season.”
“We struggled Saturday offensively against Northwestern, so I was anxious to see how we responded against a pitcher like Brooke,” Gibson said. “For us to battle with them in a low-scoring game, it shows that our defenses are good and is a credit to both pitchers. They’ll put pressure on you and force you to make plays — and, unfortunately, we didn’t at the beginning — but the way a sophomore like Kristen responded on the mound was unbelievable.”
Covington hosts Centerville Wednesday in a game that was rescheduled from Monday night, while Newton will travel to Miami East for another CCC showdown on Thursday.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.