By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Portage Central senior Gina Verduczo was maybe a tad bummed as she recalled in detail two walks she gave up Thursday morning. After all, she’d walked at most 10 batters this entire season.
But the Mustangs’ ace also was a little surprised to find out some of her personal highlights in what might be the most memorable game of her high school career – until Portage Central plays again in Saturday’s MHSAA Division 1 Final.
Verduczo threw a no-hitter and drove in the game’s only run in the sixth inning as Portage Central advanced to its first championship game since 1977 with a 1-0 victory over Utica Ford.
She’d glanced at the Secchia Stadium scoreboard a few times. But apparently she missed the “0” in Ford’s hits column indicating her near-perfect performance from the pitching circle.
“My dad was a baseball player; he was a pitcher, and he taught me to focus on the job and hand and not look at what you’ve done,” Verduczo said. “You still have six more outs to go, three more outs to go. Obviously, down to the end, she could’ve gotten a hit. I still had a job to do.”
Portage Central (42-3), ranked No. 3, will try to finish that job against No. 4 Bay City Western in the championship game at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
Verduczo finished the Semifinal with 11 strikeouts and allowed only those two runners who reached on bases on balls. She closed the game by striking out the side in the bottom of the seventh inning.
As Mustangs coach Tom Hamilton pointed out, Verduczo also knows the disappointment of falling in such a tight game. Portage Central was top-ranked in Division 1 heading into last season’s tournament, but lost to eventual MHSAA champion Mattawan on a walk-off home run in the District Final.
“If there’s a person we’ve got on this team (that) we want on that mound, she’s got that bulldog mentality,” Hamilton said. “This is her moment to shine.
“She’s been in games like that where she’s been on the other end. So it’s nice to see her be on this end of it.”
Portage Central senior outfielder Lea Foerster singled with one out in the sixth inning, and after moving to second on senior Taylor Snyder’s sacrifice came home on Verduczo’s single to right field.
Verduczo had a pair of singles, the only batter in the game with multiple hits.
“We’re excited for the last seven innings,” Verduczo said, referring to Saturday’s Final. “This was one of our goals, and we’re happy to be part of it.”
Utica Ford freshman Nikki Sorgi also was impressive in the circle, allowing only six hits and walking one batter in her team’s first Semifinal appearance. Ford finished 30-9. Click for a full box score.
Bay City Western 2, Romeo 1
Bay City Western (40-3) returned nearly the same lineup that carried the Warriors last season to their first MHSAA championship game in team history. And the lessons learned during that run surely paid off in Thursday’s second Semifinal.
Western fell behind 1-0 in the fourth inning when Romeo sophomore shortstop Morgan Gardner drilled a Hannah Leppek pitch over the left-field fence – the only home run Leppek has given up this season.
“I don’t like that feeling, obviously, and I wasn’t used to it,” said Leppek, an all-stater last season. “I had to teach myself really quickly how to get over it.”
Still, with Romeo pitcher Taylor Weaver also dominating, it began to look like the Bulldogs would be advancing to their first-ever MHSAA Final instead of Western returning.
But Leppek did bounce back quickly. She doubled in the tying run and scored the go-ahead in the sixth inning, and allowed only three hits the rest of the game.
Leppek ended with two hits in three at bats, and struck out six batters while walking only one.
“I learned (in last year’s Final) how to handle my emotions and the stress and the crowd, and everything like that,” Leppek said. “(And) my hits definitely built me back up.”
Sophomore second baseman Kelsie Popp – whose walk-off homer Tuesday pushed the Warriors past Hudsonville 4-2 and into the Semifinals – drove in Leppek with a double.
“She’s starting to learn how to be a clutch hitter, isn’t she,” Western coach Rick Garlinghouse said of Popp. “She comes through. She protects (Meredith) Rousse, (Kaylynn) Carpenter and Leppek in our batting order, and they can’t pitch around those three with her batting fourth. We’re a pretty hard team to beat that way.”
Weaver allowed only four hits, striking out six without allowing a walk. Romeo, ranked No. 2, finished 31-8. Click for a full box score.
PHOTOS: (Top) Portage Central pitcher Kim Verduczo fires a pitch during her Division 1 Semifinal no-hitter. (Middle) Bay City Western pitcher Hannah Leppek unloads a pitch in the Warriors’ Semifinal victory.