BY MICHAEL KELLY
MALTA — One by one, they each took in a deep breath.
Huddled together in the pitcher’s circle, the members of the Shenendehowa softball infield exhaled together. They had three outs left to get to secure their spot in Friday’s Section II Class AA championship game against Ballston Spa.
That’s when the tension of the moment got the best of them in an unexpected way. Suddenly, each of the Plainsmen burst out into laughter.
“Nothing funny was really said,” Shenendehowa pitcher Abby Shields said. “We were just so excited to finally finish this off and beat Columbia because they’re such a great team.”
“We’re just funny like that sometimes,” Shenendehowa first baseman Kelly Barkevich said.
The Plainsmen got those three outs without any drama, as Shenendehowa wrapped up a 6-2 win. The victory not only advanced the squad from Tuesday’s semifinals at Luther Forest Athletic Fields, but also helped the senior-laden Plainsmen overcome the player — Columbia sophomore standout pitcher Maddie Burns — who has had their number the past couple of seasons.
“We didn’t think about it possibly being our last game,” Shenendehowa right fielder Sadie Evans said. “We thought about it like, ‘This is personal. We can’t let Maddie Burns beat us again.’ ”
Burns beat the Plainsmen during the regular season, and also had helped Columbia top Shenendehowa in 2015. The Columbia hurler entered Tuesday’s semifinals off a sterling quarterfinal performance, striking out 15 batters during the course of her high school career’s sixth no-hitter. Meanwhile, Shenendehowa — the defending Section II champion — had surged into the semifinals off a win in which it scored 23 runs, only one fewer than was scored in the classification’s other three quarterfinal games combined.
Shenendehowa (No. 3, 18-3) got to the Columbia (No. 2, 15-7) ace to start the contest. Second baseman Kelly O’Gorman singled to start the game and scored after a Columbia throwing error following one of Evans’ three singles. That lead didn’t last long, as Columbia right fielder Natalie Obermayer answered with a two-run single in the second inning, but striking early against Burns was pivotal for the Plainsmen.
“That gave us a lot of confidence for the rest of the game,” said Barkevich, who walked three times and struck out once. “When [O’Gorman] led off the game with the single and we got the run home, that set the tone for us.”
“We knew we had to jump on [Burns], then stay on her,” Evans said. “If we get behind, that’s when we can psyche ourselves out.”
The Plainsmen went back ahead with a three-run third inning, in which both shortstop Nicole McCarvill and left fielder Hannah Elmer had RBIs. Shenendehowa added an insurance run in the fourth inning off an RBI single from McCarvill and its last run came in the sixth when third baseman Marissa Kirker scored on an error.
Shields worked into and out of trouble for the Plainsmen. Columbia loaded the bases in the first, fourth and fifth innings, but came away from those chances with no runs against Shields, who struck out three.
“They weren’t going to give in, but neither were we,” Shenendehowa head coach Chris Farquharson said.
“We stayed confident, and we got it done,” Evans said.
Burns struck out nine for Columbia. Three of her six runs allowed were earned.
Ballston Spa (No. 4, 16-4) topped Guilderland (No. 8, 7-15) 8-0 in the other Class AA semifinal. Ballston Spa and Shenendehowa will meet Friday at the Luther Forest fields to decide this year’s champion.
The Plainsmen celebrated Tuesday’s win like it was a championship game, but know Friday’s final against the Scotties is now the most important game of their season.
“We’ll refocus, and we’ll take them just as seriously as we did Columbia,” Shield said.
Shenendehowa 103 101 0 — 6 9 0
Columbia 020 000 0 — 2 4 3
Shields and Cuttita; Burns and Hayes.