YORKTOWN, Ind. — Tuesday was circled on Jeremy Penrod’s calendar for months.
The Yorktown softball head coach and his players knew New Palestine was a measuring-stick game, and it sure played out as such. The teams battled back and forth all evening, with the Tigers maintaining the advantage until the sixth inning.
The Dragons took a 3-2 lead before sophomore Ava McNally blasted a solo home run to tie the contest entering the seventh frame. Star senior pitcher Alanah Jones then allowed her first homer of the season, and Yorktown eventually fell 4-3.
While the loss certainly appeared deflating, the Class 3A top-ranked Tigers felt no shame in falling to 4A No. 3 New Palestine in a game that could’ve gone either way. In fact, they proved to themselves and future opponents that they’re for real.
“That’s the level that we’re at. If we were in 4A we would be ranked in the top-10,” Penrod said. “We’re that good. We can compete with the teams even in the top-5.”
Penrod reminded his girls in the post-game huddle not to lose sight of their goals. He said the Hoosier Heritage Conference, arguably the toughest in the state with three top-10 4A teams alongside Yorktown, is still up for grabs.
His players truly believe that sentiment. The Tigers refuse to hang their heads, whether it’d be after a demoralizing play or loss, because they’ve committed to one another.
Penrod’s primary message since taking over as head coach in November is to make sure his players are, firstly, having fun playing the game. Mistakes happen, so enjoy the improvement process. He believes that mindset will take them where they want to go.
“We’re always picking each other up in the dugout. That’s one good thing I love about this team is we’re always positive,” Jones said. “If something bad happens we all flush it … next play. We all brush off and go back out there on the field.”
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Tuesday’s loss, Yorktown’s first of the season, tested the team’s resolve several times. Jones allowed her first earned runs of the season after 17 shutout innings, two costly errors led to a deciding two unearned runs, and seven runners were left on base.
Yet the Tigers still squashed the Dragons’ momentum with strong defensive plays after errors, and continued to swing confidently at the plate. With already having five games rained out, Yorktown knows it’s on the right track to achieve something special this year.
“I thought we played with more grit this game,” senior Macie Dowd said. “I thought (against) Shelbyville we got up really early and were a little more (relaxed) … I think we’re just getting better and better.”
Yorktown went 24-6 in 2021 and lost in the sectional championship. That squad graduated several key seniors, and head coach Jeff Berger retired, yet the 2022 Tigers feel they’re even better.
It starts with co-captains Jones and Dowd, who have helped mold a roster comprised of four seniors, three juniors, four sophomore and five freshman. Penrod knows it can be difficult to get players of different ages all on the same page, so he’s happy they’re already ahead of schedule in building chemistry.
Team has less experience, but plenty of talent
Despite the team having less experience, Jones and Dowd both believe this team is better than last season’s, partly because of overall talent, as well as a change in mindset.
“I’d say our attitudes (are different). The girls that we have now, they seem like they want it more than the girls last year,” Jones said. “I feel like they felt they were committed (to colleges), they were trying to have fun. These girls, we’re all trying to have fun, but we’re also here to win.”
The captains are also the stars on the field. Jones is truly a top two-way player, sporting a 0.58 ERA in 24 innings pitched while leading her team in RBI’s (six) and home runs (two) with a 1.199 OPS.
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Her production is no accident. The Purdue Fort Wayne commit said she enjoys pushing her limits, whether that’s getting an extra workout in when games are cancelled or embracing the challenge of being the top pitcher and 2-hole hitter. She credited her father for instilling the mindset that hard work yields positive results.
Dowd acts as Yorktown’s top plate presence, and the two work together in leading this group. She leads the team in batting average (.588) and hits (10) with five RBI’s, and is due for some home runs after hitting nine last season.
The Tigers came up short to New Palestine in the state finals in 2019 before the Dragons elevated to 4A. New Palestine head coach Ed Marcum, the winner of six state championships in the last 20 years, told Yorktown’s players after the game that they have what it takes to win a state title.
That put smiles on the faces of those in the dugout, but they already knew.
“I think this year our team has it in the bag,” Jones said. “Literally, we’re so good this year, and everyone is so encouraging of each other and always picking each other, and I just think we can do it all together as a team is go to state, for sure.”
Does Yorktown have a shot at the state title?
Penrod, understandably, wasn’t so quick to claim a state championship berth. He believes it’s more about playing your best softball at the right time, so Yorktown should be in good shape if it continues building on its strong first five outings.
It will come down to execution. Pitching, hitting and fielding have been mostly stellar so far, with the Tigers’ only real problem being bunting. Penrod loves moving runners over, playing some small ball, but the players haven’t yet translated their practice success into a game scenario.
Penrod called for a sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the fifth, the attempt missed and the third-base runner eventually got tagged out in a rundown. That might’ve been the difference in beating New Palestine.
Still, there’s plenty to be excited about for Yorktown softball. McNally found her swing in the 8-hole after moving down in the lineup, the underclassmen are contributing and the top players matchup with anyone in 3A.
As long as they continuing learning each day, each game, each inning, each pitch, Penrod thinks anything is possible.
“Do I think we have a legitimate shot? I think … if we play to our potential like we did against Shelbyville, like we did (against New Palestine),” Penrod said. “We make one more play than the other team that we’re facing, then to me we have a shot to meet the goal they want to meet.”
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Yorktown softball battles against top teams, hopeful for state title