Herald Photo / Dean Hockney
TO THE BASES  — Northwestern’s Crystal Metz makes the pitch.
Herald Photo / Dean Hockney TO THE BASES — Northwestern’s Crystal Metz makes the pitch.
The Northwestern Tigers started the softball season red-hot, winning its first eight games and earning points in the state Class 3A poll. 

With the season close to ending, Lady Tigers players and fans were excited to take a 15-4 record into the championship game of the Hoosier Conference with a shot at winning the program’s first-ever league title in any conference.

But before the fans could find their seats after the National Anthem, the Tigers found themselves behind 2-0 on a pair of unearned runs in the first inning. Head Coach Chris Walker knew his team had the strength to recover, but they would need to regroup if the Tigers wanted to fill the conference championship trophy void in the softball trophy case.

“They’ve pretty much done that throughout the conference,” said Walker, whose squad is now ranked No. 18. “We got down to Heights and Tipton, and they just stayed with it. They were a different team when it came to a conference game.”

Crystal Metz, the stalwart of the Tigers’ pitching staff, struggled in the first inning, giving up a single and two walks. But like Walker said, she stayed with it and regained her form, as 16 of the next 17 Twin Lakes hitters went down. The offense then found its groove, and Northwestern downed Twin Lakes 10-3 to hoist the Hoosier Conference championship trophy.

“She is lights-out,” said Walker while shaking his head and talking about his star pitcher. “She just stayed at it. Her changeup has been fabulous all year.”

According to Metz, a lot of the credit goes to an area restaurant and a pregame meal. She explained the team wanted the conference title, and they decided to change things up with the get-together. She said she wanted the team to get its head in the right place, so they went out for wings.

“We actually met at B-Dubs (Buffalo Wild Wings) before the game because we knew that this was going to be a big one, and we needed to be there mentally,” Metz admitted. “It started off a little shaky with an error. I have to admit, I was kind of scared, but in the dugout, I just pulled them all together. I said, ‘Look, what did we say at B-Dubs? Just follow through with it.’ We did; it kind of came together for us.”

With Metz back in control on the hill – she retired 11 consecutive hitters at one point – the Tigers’ bats came alive. In the fourth inning, the bottom of the order got the team rolling. Chase Butcher singled, Madison Walker hustled down the line and beat a bad throw to first, and Kelli Gill knocked an RBI single to tie the game at two. Bailey Thatcher ripped an RBI double, and Sara Hughes crushed a two-run home run to left-center field to put the Tigers up 6-2.

“I think once I got a little bit of the nerves out, I was perfectly fine,” said Metz. “I think our bats came around in the third, and once our bats came around, everything got more exciting. For me, as a pitcher, it is easier to pitch knowing my teammates are up.”

“That home run was huge,” said Walker of Hughes’ game-changing hit. “This is a tough league, and this goes back to December in open gyms. One night we walked down and looked at the (conference banners) in the gym, and we were the only one that didn’t have a year in it.”

The fifth inning also belonged to the Northwestern bats as Megan Osman and Thatcher each had RBI hits to put the game out of reach at 10-2.

Twin Lakes added a run in the top of the seventh inning, but just as that run crossed the plate, Northwestern catcher Kaitlyn Kennedy rifled a throw to third base for the final out of the game – and the start of the Lady Tigers first-ever conference championship celebration.

Butcher helped lead the offensive attack for Northwestern with a pair of doubles and two runs scored. She reached base four times. Hughes had a three RBI game. Thatcher had three hits, including a double, plus she scored three times, and Sophia Beachy added three hits and three runs.

On the hill, Metz tossed a four-hitter, giving up three runs, all of which were unearned. She recorded 11 strikeouts and two walks. She is now 13-2 on the season with a 1.30 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 96 2/3 innings pitched. She has 42 wins and a career ERA of 1.56 in her three-year varsity career as a pitcher.

With the state tournament looming next week, the biggest question for Northwestern might be: Where are the Lady Tigers going to eat its pregame meal. According to Metz, there is a good chance they will be back at B-Dubs, and she will once again partake in sweet BBQ boneless wings with a side salad and water.