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Panthers fall to No. 8 Royals in softball

By RON GREESON - For the Courier-Times

KNIGHTSTOWN – A cold and gray early spring afternoon was the setting Tuesday for a meeting of area rivals and state-ranked Class 2A varsity softball teams.

On the new playing field at Knightstown High School, the host Panthers welcomed Class 2A No. 8 Eastern Hancock, and by the time a gray dusk was approaching, the Royals had posted a come-from-behind 12-8 win.

Knightstown is now 1-1 after home games on consecutive nights versus higher-ranked foes, while the visitors opened the season with Tuesday’s game.

Eastern Hancock scored two runs in the top of the first inning, but the hosts responded right back in the bottom of the inning to tie the score.

Even with the first two batters going out, KHS mounted the rally. Jess Butler drew a walk, advanced to second and then third base on wild pitches. Allyson Hauk then worked a free pass, then took second base without a throw.

With the tying runs in scoring position, Courtney Carlton singled to bring in both runners and tie the score. Both Trinidie Newby and Cara Mullen then drew walks to load the bases before the final out of the inning was recorded, and a long first inning concluded with a score of two runs each.

Knightstown starting pitcher Sydney Vise then retired the Royals without scoring in both the second and third innings with the help of errorless defense in the field by the Panthers. Knightstown had committed two errors to help EH score twice in the top of the first inning.

In the home third inning, Knightstown was opportunistic on offense again, as a double by Carlton started what became a three-run rally for the home team. Newby drew a walk, then Mullen put down a perfect bunt and reached first base safely to load the bases with just one out.

Makenna Leisure then drew a bases-loaded walk to force in the go-ahead run for Knightstown. Another run crossed on a fielder’s choice off a ground ball struck by Lexy Goodpaster. After a strikeout for the second out of the inning, Vise received a walk to force in the third run of the inning, and KHS led 5-2.

Midway through the inning, junior Royals No. 1 pitcher Elise Bittinger entered the circle to replace sophomore Jessi Potts. Bittinger is coming back from an illness and is not yet back to full strength, but pitched the remainder of the game to earn the victory.

Vise worked through five full innings in the circle for the Panthers, and held the lead until two outs in the top of the fifth inning.

In the top of that inning, Eriel Truitt singled in two runs for EH to cut the deficit to 5-4, and then with two runners on and two outs, Maddie Clutinger stroked a three-run home run over the left-center field fence and the eighth-ranked Royals took the lead for good at 7-5.

Carlton took over in the circle for Knightstown in innings six and seven, and with the bats awakened late, the visitors added two runs in the sixth, then three in the team’s last at-bat.

Thus, the lead for the Royals was 12-5 when Knightstown came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning in darkening weather conditions.

Leisure started a late Panther offensive burst by lining a triple down the right field line, and she crossed on a run-scoring single from Goodpaster.

A groundout off the bat of Jackson advanced Goodpaster to second, and then Vise singled in Goodpaster for the second run of the inning, and seventh run of the game for Knightstown.

Butler then singled to centerfield, and when the ball got through for an error by the Royals, Vise circled the bases and scored the game’s final run for the Panthers, with Butler winding up on third base.

But Bittinger retired Hauk and Carlton to end the contest, and close out the win for Eastern Hancock.

Head coach Bret Mann of Knightstown spoke at length with his charges after the game, as the team reflected on its first loss of the season, but just ahead of a busy upcoming schedule of key early season games.

“When you make the errors we did (six), against a team like Eastern Hancock, you’re just not going to win the game,” Mann said. “But still we lost by only four runs, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

KHS committed errors in four of the seven innings, and all were involved in scoring innings for the Royals.

“We didn’t play the kind of softball we need to play,” the Knightstown head varsity coach continued. “I was proud that late in the game, we went up to the plate and earned those three runs. The earlier runs were kind of given to us.”

The Panthers return just two starting players from last year’s squad, and many talented seniors have graduated from the program.

“We are trying to figure out our personnel and our chemistry, and we have a number of junior varsity girls that have moved up and a group of newcomers, so it is just going to take some time to put all the pieces together and improve to be at our best by the end of the season,” Mann concluded.

Carlton had two hits and reached base four times for Knightstown, while Leisure had a triple. Freshman Mullen had two singles, as did Butler, and Newby reached base three times on two walks and a perfectly-placed bunt single.

Knightstown returns to action tonight with the team’s second Tri-Eastern Conference (TEC) game of the season, going to Wilson Field in Dublin to play Lincoln. Blue River comes to Knightstown Friday in a 5:30 p.m. rescheduled game.

Eastern Hancock was scheduled to play Wednesday at Blue River to open play in the Mid-Eastern Conference (MEC), and then have three more road games on the original schedule: challenging games at Class 4A Warren Central tonight, at Tri Saturday, and then at Class 4A Hamilton Southeastern Monday.