Maize, Carroll softball split in intense rivalry games
Maize and Carroll played what seemed like a meaningless doubleheader Tuesday, but undertones of a rivalry pierced the atmosphere.
Both teams had clinched their league titles, and both are guaranteed a high seed at the regional tournament starting Monday. But rule infractions and seething emotions took hold and proved Maize vs. Carroll is the softball rivalry of Wichita.
Carroll took game 1, 5-3. After the game, the Maize players talked with one another and reaffirmed this was the time to end a drought that stretched to 2012. They took the nightcap 2-0 and celebrated as if they had won a state championship, Carroll coach Steve Harshberger said.
"We've known we've been better than them," she said. "We've known we can outplay them. It just hasn't shown. So this year, we came out for blood. Nothing else but to just put Carroll in their place."
The second game was much more testy than the first. The game started with Maize coaches, players and fans shouting at the umpire about Carroll pitcher Kaylin Watkins.
They believed Watkins was hopping during her pitches, which is an illegal move and would give the runners a free base. After about three innings, the umpire started to call Watkins for illegal pitches.
A couple of innings later, Carroll told the umpire Maize pitcher Madi Arnold was doing the same thing. The umpire started calling that, too, which only heightened tensions in the Maize dugout.
Maize then noticed Watkins touching the rubber in the circle, then taking the ball out of her glove and back in again — another illegal move.
And Carroll noticed Maize's Lexie Pitcher tossing her bat at the catcher after hitting the ball, another rule violation that was called.
Both teams agreed they wouldn't have complained to the umpire as often as they did if they weren't playing each other.
"It's the intensity of the game," Harshberger said. "We want to beat them, and they want to beat us."
None of the calls had any direct impact on the outcome, as both Maize runs were scored in the first inning before the calls were made. But they did bring the rivalry to life. Both teams started talking more in the dugouts and less on the field to the opponents.
Many of the players know one another from club softball, and with most players living on the west side, but the rivalry went beyond that.
Maize has felt robbed on several occasions since 2012. Senior Savannah Hughes was in sixth grade the last time Maize beat Carroll, and she said they started to feel cursed. That was another reason they cracked open the rule book.
"We're both very strong, dominant teams," Hughes said. "So those little things change games. Those are things that, in games like these, you have to pay attention to. It might seem petty, but at the same time, we're pretty equally yolked most years."
Since 2012, Maize has won 102 games and lost 19. Eleven of those losses have been to Carroll, and six of them have been by two runs or fewer.
Ast thought that was bound to happen again in game 2 when she flied out in the top of the fifth. She roped one to center that looked as if it was going out. Ast watched it the whole way because she wanted to see it go over the fence.
Instead, Hadley Kerschen made an unbelievable leaping snag at the fence. That out turned into two. The umpire ruled Hughes did not tag up from third on her way home after the ball was caught. She was called out for a double play.
Maize was up 2-0, but the players felt down on the scoreboard.
"As soon as she caught it, my heart just broke because we just couldn't catch a break," Ast said. "
Heading into the seventh inning, Maize coach Jenny Meirowsky said she was just waiting for the back-breaker that has come as recently as 2016 with a 4-3 loss in extra innings.
It never came, but it came close.
In the bottom of the seventh, Carroll had a runner at third with a Emma Henning, who bats over .500, at the plate. Arnold struck her out.
Ast said Tuesday was important because it showed them it was possible.
"That reaction you saw when Madi threw that last pitch, that was purely candid," Ast said. "That was so much weight taken off of our shoulders. Anger dispersed from all of our hearts. We were just immensely relieved in that moment."
Between the two games Tuesday, the final was 5-5. Both teams had timely hitting and clutch pitching. In the fifth inning of game 1, Carroll's Ally Vonfeldt hit a hard ground ball to shortstop that scored two go-ahead runs that proved to make the difference.
And in game 2, Hughes' sacrifice fly and Sophie Buzard's solo home run in the first inning was all Maize needed.
Both teams will go on to their regional tournaments with momentum. Coming in, Carroll players said they try to approach every game as if they are playing Maize. They have a harmless taste of playoff softball now.
And for Maize, the source of momentum is obvious.
Maize is No. 1 in the Class 5A West Regional standings at 16-1. Carroll is behind at 18-2. Goddard and Kapaun are the next closest teams at 12-6.
Harshberger said its certainly possible for the rivals to meet up again at state May 24-25 at Maize.
"These games are fun," Harshberger said. "It brings out the best in both teams, and that creates some of the worst moments, too, because of that intensity."