One year away from the top was enough.
Carter’s Crushers, whose decade-long reign atop the Hay River Mixed Slo-pitch League came to an end last year, were back in the final Saturday with their sights set on another title.
Standing in their way were the Ashton White Shirts, who reeled off three straight wins to reach the championship game. The White Shirts, who had finished in seventh place in the regular season, were huge underdogs heading into the finals against the second place Crushers, who had come from behind to beat the league-leading Brewzers 13-12 in the first semi-final Saturday morning.
The Crushers wasted little time getting on the board, as leadoff hitter Brett Power smacked a Jason Coakwell pitch over the right field fence for his third home run of the season. After Carter’s tacked on two more runs, the White Shirts found themselves down 3-0 heading into their first at bats. The White Shirts’ Shaun Demarcke led off with a single, and advanced to second on Coakwell’s fly out to right field. Demarcke then scored on a two-out double by Steven Rosendahl. After one complete, the Crushers held a 3-1 lead.
The White Shirts didn’t panic when the Crushers picked up two more runs in the top half of the second inning. Ashton’s started the inning with back-to-back singles and were able to score two runs of their own, to trail 5-3 after two.
After shutting down the Crushers in the top of the third, the White Shirts offense exploded for four runs in their half of the inning to take a 7-5 lead. After four straight one-out singles, the White Shirts crept ahead 6-5. Tod Ashton added some insurance with a two-out single to bring in another run.
A Crusher rally in their half of the fourth gave them the lead for good. After Richard Jonestone walked with one out, Brett Power doubled to put runners at second and third for the hard-hitting Heather Coakwell. Coakwell promptly plated one runner with a single to left field. Shortstop Paul Power then cashed his younger brother with an RBI single. A two-out walk by Karen Pidhirniak loaded the bases for Crushers pitcher Glenn Smith. Smith’s single brought in two more runs. Pidhirniak and Smith then scored on a double by left fielder Ryan MacNeil. After retiring the White Shirts one-two-three, the teams went into the fifth inning with the Crushers leading 11-7.
After a scoreless fifth, the White Shirts shut down the Crushers offense in the top of the sixth. With one out in the bottom of the inning, Ashton doubled over a leaping Brett Power to put a runner in scoring position for Demarcke, who then drove Ashton in with an RBI single. The White Shirts inched closer with the run, trailing 11-8 as the game went to the seventh, and final, inning.
After once again shutting down the vaunted Crushers offense in the top of the inning, Coakwell led off the bottom of the seventh with a single. Barely able to make it to first due to a hamstring injury suffered in the semi-final, Coakwell was pulled in favour of the speedier Demarcke. Demarcke then advanced to third when Rosendahl reached base on an error, before scoring on a groundout. Down 11-9, the White Shirts brought the tying run to the plate with two outs. A groundout to Smith brought the rally to an abrupt halt and handed the title back to Carter’s. Smith was quick to savour the victory.
“Last year we kind of stumbled,” he said in the dugout following the game. “It was good to spread some interest out last year, keep them interested this year, reel them in, and then stick it to ‘em in the end.”
Ashton said the team was pleased with how they played, especially in their 15-12 semi-final win over the league’s top team in the regular season, the Brewzers. When asked about the White Shirts’ key to success in the post season, Ashton had a little fun at the expense of some of his teammates.
“We finally got rid of all our dead weight – all those guys who went houseboating,” he joked. “We were scrambling to find players all week and we just barely had enough.”
Even as the White Shirts chipped away at his team’s lead, Smith said he remained confident in his team’s chances to win.
“It was a close game for sure,” he said. “We just stuck through there in the end but the game went so quickly we didn’t have too much time to worry. No team had a big inning so it just seemed kind of a casual and close game.”