ALTOONA — Home runs have been a much-used tool for the Altoona offense this year. But when freshman Averie Varsho stepped up to the plate in the sixth inning with the go-ahead run on second base against Elk Mound on Friday, she had something else in mind.
“I was just thinking base hit,” she said.
She wasted no time in delivering.
On the first pitch of the at-bat, Varsho sent a double to left field, which ended up being the game-winning RBI and gave the Rails a 4-3 win over the Mounders for a Division 3 regional championship. It is the second consecutive regional title for Altoona, which beat Elk Mound in the same round last year.
The Rails (19-6), the No. 2 seed, will meet top-seeded Prescott on the road in the sectional semifinals on Tuesday.
“It’s awesome,” Altoona coach Chris Maurina said. “It’s a great, tight-knit group. ...We just want to keep the train going.”
Offense was hard to come by as Elk Mound pitcher Clare Hallum and Altoona pitcher Ally Wagner threw well and got the help of their defenses to keep runs off the board for the most part.
Elk Mound’s Allison Lindquist gave her team an early lead with an RBI double in the first inning, but the Mounders didn’t score on Wagner again until the fifth inning. Wagner, a freshman, earned the win with a complete game performance.
“She did great,” Maurina said of Wagner’s outing in the circle. “She struggles with her control every once in a while, but she stayed tough and did what she had to do. I’m really proud of her.”
By the time Elk Mound pushed another run across, Altoona had knotted up the score at one run apiece thanks to an RBI single by Karly Maurina in the third inning. The Mounders retook the lead in the fifth on an Altoona error, and Lindquist pushed them in front 3-1 with another hit.
“Our offense did pretty much exactly what we prepared for,” Elk Mound coach Sam Stelter said.
In the bottom of the fifth, Altoona loaded the bases with two outs to bring Lydia Berseth to the plate. The junior put together a marathon of an at-bat, fouling off pitch after pitch before sending a fly ball to the outfield. The ball dropped off an error, allowing the tying run to cross the plate.
The Mounders’ defense got a lot of work, and Stelter was generally pleased with how they handled it.
“We needed to take care of things on defense, and I think that for the most part we really did,” Stelter said.
Altoona played a lot of small ball, dropping down bunts and trying to move runners over.
The Rails didn’t care how they scored, they just cared that they did score.
“We were just trying to get people in scoring position,” Varsho said. “Try to get base hits, bunts, anything to get a run.”
The young Rails are used to playing from behind, which helped ease the pressure a little bit on Friday.
“We’ve had a lot of games this year where we were behind and we caught up,” Chris Maurina said. “We knew we could do it again. We didn’t really plan on making it as difficult as it needed to be, but it was a good result.”
Hallum scattered six hits in seven innings of work in a solid outing in the circle. She also scored a run for the Mounders.
“This was the third time we faced her in the last two years,” Chris Maurina said. “She has a really good changeup. I think we think about it a little too much sometimes. Once we figured out we should lay off that pitch and hit the other stuff, then we were OK.”
Elk Mound got the tying run aboard in the seventh when Sophie Cedarblade walked with two outs, but the Mounders couldn’t bring her around to score.
Hailey Blaskowski went 1-for-4 with a run scored for the Mounders, who finished the season with a 12-4 record.