MADISON — The formula finally started kicking in.
Speedster Ari Charles got on via an infield single and took a base on an error to begin the bottom of the sixth.
Lauren Kidd had an opposite-field approach and scorched a double to the gap to bring her home.
Blair-Taylor was on the board in a pitcher’s duel that showed early on the first team to score may just carry that momentum to the Division 5 state championship.
It just happened a half inning — and six costly runs — too late.
Belmont, which plays with an equally aggressive small-ball style, put it in play in the top of the sixth and scored run after run off infield hits and safety squeezes.
The Braves (26-1) beat the Wildcats (28-1) at their own game and won 7-1 to capture the WIAA Division 5 crown on Saturday morning at Goodman Diamond in Madison.
“We said going in there that we knew Belmont liked to be aggressive just like us,” Wildcats coach Greg Bratina said. “We just said keep them off the basepaths and don’t let them play their game. Unfortunately, we let them get on the basepaths and let them play their game a little bit. We didn’t react the way I hoped, and we couldn’t make some of those plays.”
Lauren Steien was mowing down a Braves’ lineup that put up 15 runs in their semifinal win on Thursday night against Tri-County.
In fact, Steien retired the first nine batters she faced as she mixed up her speeds effectively and painted the corners.
She never wavered and kept delivering strikes.
Belmont just began putting them in play, and the Blair-Taylor defense couldn’t keep up.
With one out in the sixth inning of a scoreless game, an error gave Belmont a baserunner, and Sadie Wilborn slapped a seeing-eye single to left. It was the first time either team had more than a runner on base all game.
The Braves dropped down a textbook sacrifice bunt in front of the plate, and the throw over to first got away. One run in. And the snowball started to build.
Nikki Knebel then plated two on a bad-hop single past shortstop, and Abby Althaus laid down a perfect safety squeeze to score another run.
Belmont added three more on a sacrifice fly and throwing error to make the once close game balloon to six. That was more than enough for Wilborn in the circle, who had a two-hit, 10-strikeout shutout on Thursday before bouncing back with a four-hit, four-strikeout gem on Saturday.
In its magical year that resulted in a third-straight trip to state, Blair-Taylor had done this exact same thing to teams. Make the defense make a play, wreck havoc on the basepaths and let the pitching do the rest.
“The Belmont coach (Jeff Hogdson) said it and goes, ‘It could have very well have been your team doing it to us,’” Bratina said. “It was whoever got it to first. They beat us to the punch.”
Only two of Steien’s runs were earned as she struck out seven in the contest with many of those coming the first time through the lineup.
Belmont kept Blair-Taylor off the bases early on and got three-up, three-down three different times before the fateful top of the sixth.
The Wildcats did have a highlight-reel play in the top of the third. Charles, the centerfielder, drifted back to the gap on a hard hit ball and flagged it down. She then planted her feet and delivered a dart to third base to nab a runner tagging for third.
All in all, though, It wasn’t Blair-Taylor’s day on Saturday as too many defensive miscues overshadowed that stellar play in center.
Nevertheless, getting back to Madison showed the consistency of the program the last three seasons. After finishing runners-up in 2017, the Wildcats will put their second trophy in the case outside the school’s gymnasium.
“We played our hardest, and we have two trophies now,” senior Danyelle Waldera said. “Not a lot of small schools have that. Twenty-eight and one, not many teams can do that. I’m so proud of everybody, and it’s been a great ride.”
“Coming down here three times in a row is amazing,” fellow senior Cierra Curran added. “As a senior, you expect a lot. You want to go far and you want to get the gold. But I’m happy with what we got. We worked hard for it, and we got something out of it.”
Blair-Taylor still hasn’t walked away with the color it most wants at the state tournament.
But with Steien, Charles, Kidd and four other starters slated to return, the Wildcats are set up in a prime position to make another run.
Not to mention, this group has established a culture within the school that has trickled down to the youth levels.
“And these younger girls in the stands, they have seen it,” Bratina said. “These girls have worked with them too, because they want to keep this going. Hopefully this isn’t a three-year stretch. Hopefully we can keep this going for quite a while.”
The foundation has been built with a higher ring on the ladder to shoot for next spring and beyond.
“It’s been an amazing three-year run,” Bratina said. “It’s been unbelievable. These girls, I think they have really showed the communities what they are and what they are going to leave behind. They have nothing to be ashamed of. So much to be proud of.”
Belmont 7, Blair-Taylor 1
Belmont 000 006 1 — 7 7 1
Blair-Taylor 000 001 0 — 1 4 4
WP: Sadie Willborn (7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K). LP: Lauren Steien (7 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 7 K). Leading hitters — Belmont: Nikki Knebel 1-4 (2 RBI), Peyton Johnson 2-4 (RBI, R), Abby Althaus 2-3 (RBI). Blair-Taylor: Lauren Kidd 1-2 (RBI).