SALEM — Whether her team comes away with a win or ends up on the wrong side of a contest, Liberty pitcher Millie Thompson consistently remains composed as she goes through her postgame routine.
It’s easy to see a feeling of satisfaction wash over the junior following a good result, of course. But Thursday, as she stood near the field at Moyer Complex, a new emotion took hold of the Minettes’ ace.
Thompson was so excited she could barely catch her breath as she fielded postgame questions. The wide smile she flashed never left her face, and Thompson could only be described as giddy.
The response was appropriate, considering the history the Minettes had just made.
Thanks to an offensive outburst in the first inning and yet another solid outing in the circle for Thompson, Liberty took down Warren County, 5-1, in the Class 3 state semifinals to secure a spot in the state championship game for the first time in program history.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Thompson said.
More than a week had passed between the last out of their state quarterfinal contest and the first pitch of their semifinal game, but it didn’t take the Minettes (21-6) long to get going Thursday.
Taylor Friess singled to center field in Liberty’s first at-bat, and her teammates followed with four consecutive hits later in the inning to grab a lead they never relinquished.
“I think it was a confidence booster,” Liberty junior catcher Machenze Flood said.
“Last year [in a 3-0 semifinal loss to Cave Spring] we came out here and didn’t score at all.”
Flood, who went 1 for 3, jumpstarted the scoring outburst when she smacked an RBI single to left field with two outs. Gracie Dooley singled to short next, and Thompson and Paige Naples each recorded run-scoring singles to make it 3-0 before Warren County pitcher Elizabeth Keener could escape the inning.
“I’m glad we got off to the start we got off to,” Liberty coach Mike Thompson said.
The coach, like his team, sent a message early on in the contest.
After the Minettes’ defense recorded a scoreless top of the first inning, players gathered outside the dugout during the changeover to listen to advice from Thompson, their third-year coach. Thompson didn’t try to ignore his players’ nerves, but helped them realize they could exploit the lack of postseason experience of their opponents — making their first appearance in a state tournament in more than three decades, according to WC coach Ted McDaniel.
“I looked at [Millie] and said, ‘How nervous are you out there?’ and she said, ‘Extremely, I almost threw up a few times,’” Mike Thompson said. “I said, ‘There you go. Their pitcher is no less nervous.’”
Keener, the Wildcats’ senior ace who entered with a 1.63 ERA, allowed nine hits on the day, with five of them coming in the first frame.
“Giving up those runs in that first inning did kind of hurt us. All season we haven’t gotten down on ourselves, but I think that inning, it did get to us a little bit,” she said.
Keener settled down in the second inning and retired nine straight batters in the second, third and fourth on 25 pitches, but she needed 34 pitches to get out of the first and 23 to escape the fifth inning, when Liberty scored two more times.
With one out in the fifth, Rieley Taylor’s bloop single fell into shallow center field, and Kacey Whorley reached on a fielder’s choice. The Minettes provided more two-out magic on Dooley’s RBI single to center, and Millie Thompson’s double rolled all the way to the fence in center field to plate the final run for Liberty and make it 5-1.
Friess, Dooley and Thompson had two hits apiece.
“Obviously I’m not our third batter, and I don’t do that often,” Thompson, who went 2 for 3, said of her double, “but it’s a great feeling.
“It was really cool. I didn’t expect that.”
Thompson was just as good in the circle, allowing just four hits and one earned run.
In the third, Ramsey Young delivered a leadoff single for Warren County (21-3), and Thompson issued her only walk of the day to Morgan Coons. The runners moved into scoring position on Hailey Stiltner’s sacrifice bunt, and Jayda Saulsbury gave Young time to come home on her groundout to cut it to 3-1, but that’s as close as the Wildcats got.
Saulsbury said she knew her team had the ability to rally, but admitted the Wildcats hadn’t faced a hurler like Thompson all season.
“We’ve never seen a pitcher of that caliber,” she said.
Every batter in the Warren County lineup struck out at least once against the southpaw, who had 10 Ks.
Thompson stranded a runner at second in each of the first four innings and retired the final nine batters she faced.
The Minettes will take on Turner Ashby in Friday’s 9 a.m. championship game at Moyer Complex.
The Knights (23-4), behind senior pitcher Makayla Cyzick’s 16 strikeouts, blasted Skyline 11-0 in the other semifinal Thursday.
Liberty defeated Turner Ashby 3-0 on May 30, the teams’ lone meeting so far this season, in the Region 3C championship game.
“They’re a great team. I have talked about [the series] between us being 50-50. If we played 10 times, they’d probably win five, we’d win five,” Mike Thompson said of TA. “If you would’ve told me six months ago we’d have a 50 percent chance of winning the state championship, I’d take it.”
Emily Brown covers the Hillcats and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.