Kaiserslautern junior Abby Young toed the pitching rubber preparing to throw what she hoped would be her last pitch on the glorious sunny Saturday afternoon. Holding the ball in the glove against her belt, she took a quick glance around the infield and saw that the bases were occupied by players wearing the wrong color uniforms. Her teammates in the dugout were vociferously encouraging her, as they had all day. She took a deep breath, looked down at the dirt to gather her thoughts and clear her head, then focused on the open mitt target given her Sky Flanagan for the 150th time that day. Young was exhausted and having trouble finding the strike zone. She entered the inning ahead 15-10, but because of fatigue and pressure, the next five hitters reached base, four by bases on balls, and the Kaiserslautern lead had shrunk to just two.
“I was a little scared,” said Flanagan. “But I knew she (Young) could get us through the inning. I didn’t know the score and I just wanted to keep everything in front of me. I tried to get Abby through it. I wanted to go up and tell her something, but I just couldn’t think of what to say.”
Young knew it all boiled down to one last pitch. “There was a lot of pressure. I didn’t know the score but I knew I had to throw three strikes. So I went over the mechanics in my head and made sure I did everything correctly and just threw.”
Staring at the target and ignoring everything else going on around her, Young exhaled, windmilled her left arm, and then watched with relief as the umpire raised his right arm for a called third strike. The Kaiserslautern fans and players erupted. She could finally relax.
With the strike out, the Raiders escaped with a 15-13 softball victory on the Landstuhl field against the scrappy and well coached Lakenheath Lancers who refused to give in. Kaiserslautern also won the morning opener against Alconbury 22-1 in a walk fest.
The Raiders took a 6-2 lead into the third inning, but the resilient Lancers tied it with four of their own, including a bases loaded triple. Kaiserslautern, with the help of several walks and some timely hitting, picked up six more in its half of the inning, the big blow a bomb off the fence for a double by first baseman Kyra Watson. But she was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple to end the inning up 12-6.
The Lancers would not stay down and looked like they might get back into it in their next at bat, loading the bases again. With one out, the Raiders turned an unusual pitcher to first base to catcher to third base double play to escape the frame up 12-7. The hitter smacked a liner back to the mound and Young caught it and threw to first, but the runner got back. The runner at third had gone on the crack of the bat and was almost back to the dugout when Watson, the first basemen, threw it home. There was no play there so catcher Flanagan whipped the throw to third, forcing out the runner to escape the jam.
In the fourth, Flanagan timed a Lakenheath change up and drilled a shot off the fence in left, driving home another run. The Lancers got three more in their next at bat and it was 14-10 Kaiserslautern. In the fifth, Cat San Miguel tripled deep to right center and scored on a throwing error, 15-10 Raiders.
“I was trying to hit a homerun,” Flanagan said with a smile on her face discussing the key at bat. Watson, Flanagan and San Miguel’s hits were all line shots, the first two to the deepest part of the field and Flanagan’s pulled down the line.
Veteran coach Jesse Costa was calm after the game because has been through it all before. She has been a beacon in the European softball ranks for a long time and has piled up many achievements, including starting the successful program at Kadena a few years back. She understands the transitory nature of baseball in Europe and knows that every year brings a new challenge.
“Overall I am happy,” she said. “We only have two returning starters. I thought this was going to be a rebuilding year, so the way they are playing together, I am really happy with where they are.” Costa pointed to one of her returnees, Erin Nuckols, as a strong leader who has really come into her own. She said she is a sophomore but is stepping up, which is always sorely needed when there is so much movement from year to year.
The Raiders are 6-2 and improving each week as they countdown to the Euros in May. Costa named Stuttgart, Vilseck and Ramstein as the strongest of the field, as of right now. But there are still three weeks remaining before Euros, which will be in the KMC May 23-25.
In Ramstein on Friday, the Royals rolled over Lakenheath 16-1 and Alconbury 20-0 to raise their record to 5-3.
“It was our first real moment of competing as a team rather than individuals,” said Co-Coach Carter Hollenback. “We focus on team first. It takes time for a young team to gel and to implement a ‘team before self’ ideology. We try to instill the motto ‘Attitude and Effort’ every day at practice and in games. We’ve had several players step up this season as leaders.”
Against Alconbury, the Royals showed that high school athletics is not just about playing games and practicing. To show their concern for survivors of cancer, the girls wore pink uniforms, which has become a tradition.
“The Breast Cancer Awareness game is an opportunity for us to recognize those individuals that have battled cancer. We have been acknowledging survivors for at least five years. Our team parents (Mr. and Mrs. Deutsch) have been in charge the past two years,” Hollenback said.