The Conneaut softball team has a knack for getting key hits in tough situations.
In that regard, it was same old, same old for the Spartans in a 7-4 Division II district semifinal victory over top-seeded Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin at the JAGS Complex on Tuesday.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen it time and time again,” acting coach Joel Taylor said. “People are getting big hits in situations. It never gets old, but it doesn’t surprise me (when it happens).”
The Spartans (15-1), seeded fourth, will play second-seeded Lake Catholic (22-4-1), an 8-3 winner over third-seeded Beaumont in the other semifinal, in the district championship game today at 4:30 p.m. The Spartans have not played in a district final since their state-championship season of 2000.
“We will put district semifinal on the banner, but we also want to put district champion on there,” Taylor said after he was asked if the girls could finally put something on a banner, referring to questions the Spartans had asked following the 10-7 sectional championship win over Jefferson last Thursday.
Trailing, 2-0, entering the fourth, the Conneaut hitters solved pitcher Samantha Flowers, who made a spot start for ace Jill Hetki, who was out with a pulled back muscle. The Spartans tallied four runs to take control.
“They wore out their third-base coach hitting foul balls at him,” NDCL coach Jack McParland said. “(Flowers) is a freshman who spent last night in the hospital and our other pitcher (Hetki) was having her back checked out.
“Take nothing away from Conneaut. They’re a nice team. They were a hard read for us because we saw some of the teams they had played — they played teams like Ledgemont — and we didn’t know if they had much (based on their schedule).”
The Spartans tallied four runs off Flowers in sending eight batters to the plate in the fourth.
“That’s when we honestly said (as a team), we could beat these guys,” Taylor said. “We lost to these guys two years ago and again last year. NDCL was the No. 1 seed, but we told the girls we thought they could play with this team.
“(The fourth inning) was when (the players) realized they could beat (NDCL).”
Tayler Kantola got it started with a one-out single and went all the way to third on a two-out single by Lydia Coccitto. Kantola scored on an infield single from Tori Simek. Lexi Zappitelli then sent a laser down the line in left for a two-run triple for a 3-2 Conneaut lead.
“I was just trying to get a base hit, anything to get on base,” Zappitelli said. “It happened to be one of my favorite pitches and I turned on it.”
“That was a base-clearer,” Taylor said. “That was a big hit that took the wind out of their sails a little bit.”
Angie Zappitelli followed with a run-scoring single and the Spartans held a 4-2 advantage through three and a half.
“That was a hammer on the nail, getting it in there a little further,” Taylor said. “That was big for Angie, too. After the first couple times, she was a little discouraged. That was a boost for her.”
Lexi Zappitelli struck out the side in the home half of the fourth and the Spartans had seized control.
Emilee Bucci drew a one-out walk in the fifth chasing Flowers (6-2), who took the loss, from the game. Relief pitcher Erin Ruff then walked Tayler Kantola. During that at-bat, Bucci had moved over to third on a pair of wild pitches. Bucci scored as Kayla Brennan reached on a fielder’s choice that erased Kantola from the base paths after a rundown.
Coccitto scorched a ground ball back up the middle that was misplayed to score Brennan and Conneaut held a 6-2 advantage going into the bottom of the fifth.
It was the second time the Spartans had scored with two outs in the inning. They would add another run with two outs in the seventh on an RBI single from Coccitto.
“We had good pitching and timely hitting,” Taylor said. “I think we had three two-out rallies during the game. Last game, it was the top (of the lineup) who carried us through. This game, it was spread out through the whole order. Everyone picked each other up.
“This is a team that people don’t care who gets the credit. They root for each other and when you have that, good things happen. They don’t give up in the face of adversity — and there have been so many different things. They just keep bouncing back.”
The Lions had a little life left and tallied a pair of runs on Ruff’s triple to the right-field corner in the bottom of the fifth to cut the deficit in half, getting to within two, 6-4.
Over the final two innings, Lexi Zappitelli (12-1) struck out three, retired two on ground balls and got an infield popup to secure the win.
“I tried all of my different pitches,” she said. “I had to keep them off balance. If I threw all fastballs, they would have smashed them.”
In seven innings, Zappitelli allowed four runs — three earned — on four hits. She fanned 11 and walked four. She struck out batters number six through nine a combined eight times and allowed just one base runner to the last five hitters in NDCL’s order — a total of 15 at-bats.
“We said coming out of the gym (early in the spring) we had two concerns,” McParland said. “We were going to have four or five freshmen starting and we wondered if they could hold up and handle it. We also had a problem with the depth of our pitching. We knew going in it was shallow.
“That’s, in part, our fault. We have to find a way to develop pitching depth.”
Coccitto led the Spartans with four hits and Lexi Zappitelli had two hits and two RBI. Eight of the 10 players who batted for Conneaut reached base and six of them scored at leas one run with Bucci tallying twice.
Ruff led the Lions with two hits and three RBI. Jenny Raguz scored twice.
NDCL plated a run on an RBI single from Ruff in the first and another on an error in the third to go up, 2-0, through three.
Lexi Zappitelli held her composure and allowed the Spartans the chance to get back in the game.
“I thought to myself that the game wasn’t over until the last out of the last inning,” she said. “Anything could happen. I tried to keep my head up and keep fighting.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.
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