Discovery Canyon averted near disaster the afternoon of Sept. 25 and then roared back to clinch another league softball championship in the grandest of fashion.
Thunder junior right-hander McKenzie Surface worked out of a bases-loaded jam with nobody out in the top of the eighth inning. She then belted a 275-foot grand slam in the bottom of the frame off Air Academy right-hander Megan Horn to clinch the Pikes Peak Athletic Conference title, setting off a wild celebration at home plate.
“This is great for our team and it's great to defend our title that we won last year with our great team,” Surface said.
It was only fitting that the drama-filled game was for the PPAC title. An Air Academy victory would have muddied the playoff picture for the Thunder, likely sending it into second place and a possible road game in the upcoming Class 4A regional playoffs, which are set for Oct. 12.
The Thunder victory means that Discovery Canyon (11-5, 6-0) will host a regional, which will likely be played at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Air Academy (8-5, 4-2) will make the postseason based on its league standing and strength of schedule.
“I couldn't be more proud of our girls,” said Discovery Canyon coach Tanya Ramsay. “They fought for eight innings and ended up coming out on top today.
“Ken Surface is a big-time player and she's a clutch player and she's definitely someone that coaches want on their team. I'm just excited that she's on our team.”
The Thunder's victory was a team effort, but Surface clearly was the most important figure on offense and defense. Her two-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the sixth tied the score at 3-3 and gave the Thunder much-needed momentum. It came on a 2-1 pitch with Molly Turner on first base.
Surface pitched all eight innings, allowing three unearned runs on three hits, while striking out eight and walking five.
“This is great and (McKenzie) is awesome,” Turner said. “But we all did this as a team, which is even better.”
The score was 3-3 at the end of regulation.
Air Academy's Marlissa Wingett walked to lead off the top of the eighth and advanced to third when Thunder freshman right fielder Larissa Lum mishandled a fly ball. The next batter, Hailey Richardson, reached on a sacrifice bunt single to load the bases.
That brought Jenny Maynard to the plate, who squared around to bunt, but was hit in the left thigh with Surface's pitch. Maynard was originally awarded first base, allowing Wingett to dash home with the go-ahead run. But Ramsay asked the umpires to confer to decide whether Maynard held her bat in the strike zone or pulled it back when she was it. After a two-minute conference it was decided Maynard did not pull her bat back and the pitch was ruled a strike.
With a second life, Surface proceeded to use her 63-mph fastball and riser to get Maynard and Alexa Batzel to pop out, and Brianna Harris to strike out swinging to end the frame.
“We just got a saving grace that time and it really worked out for us,” Surface said. “I knew we were on it after that.”
With the crowd of about 200 on its feet, including Thunder football players in pads who had just finished practice, Discovery Canyon proceeded to load the bases in the bottom of the eighth. Sophomore Kailee Clark reached on an infield single to lead off the inning. That was followed by walks to Turner and junior Destiny Lackey.
Surface then stepped to the plate and ended the game on the first pitch she saw from Horn, drilled it high over the center field fence and down the hill toward the parking lot.
“I was just waiting for my pitch,” said Surface, who leads the team in homers with seven and RBIS with 29. “I just wanted a base hit. I saw the outfielders were in. I hit it hard hoping it would go somewhere. I saw it go over the fence and it was just incredible.”
Turner thought Horn appeared a little rattled in the final frame.
“Our dugout was loud and I think it was hard for her to focus,” Turner said.
The Thunder found itself in an early hole when the Kadets scored three unearned runs in the top of the second inning. With the bases loaded, Lum mishandled a fly ball that would have been the third out. Instead, her miscue cleared the bases.
The Thunder answered with a single run in the third on an RBI single by Clark.
The score remained tied until the sixth when Surface drilled her game-tying two-run homer.
“I just wanted to get a nice easy swing and get a base hit and drive in the run,” Surface said.
With the graduation of seven starters from last year's state team, the Thunder's undefeated league record is somewhat of a surprise to players and coaches. But it is not unexpected.
“I don't know if we're the most talented team out there, but we have a lot of heart,” Ramsay said.
Ramsay added that she attributes much of the team's success to her coaching staff, which includes Caran Newlen, Ashley Langoni, Aaron Ramsay and Shyloh Grover.PPAC