EAST LANSING — Unionville-Sebewaing Area’s Brynn Polega never said she’d give an arm or a leg to win a state title, but she never said that she wouldn’t, either.
After racking up 15 strikeouts through the first five innings of Saturday’s Division 4 softball state final with Kalamazoo Christian, the Patriots’ (31-9) sophomore ace’s right arm factored into the game’s finish in a different but equally effective way to account for the difference in a 3-1 victory over the Comets (31-9) that ended as suddenly as it did spectacularly.
Played at Michigan State University’s Secchia Stadium, the game came down to Kalamazoo Christian’s final at-bats in the top of the seventh inning, with the second-ranked Comets trailing 3-1. After the first two K-Christian hitters reached base, potential go-ahead run Sammy Gano got one of few good swings off Polega all game, and one of the worst results to show for it in the history of sports considering the high-stakes nature of playing for a state title.
Check out the triple play, recorded live by Classic Rock 92.1 play by play man Scott Bolsby, by clicking the link below.
The line shot off her bat looked destined to find its way up the middle and further stress the ninth-ranked Patriots’ close-out bid, but instead found the right elbow of Polega that proved as durable as it’s been dependable. The ball ricocheted off Polega, sending her spinning, but stayed in the air long enough for senior shortstop Rylee Zimmer to catch it.
The Comets’ base runners on first and second took off on contact, leaving Zimmer to complete a walk-off, unassisted triple play that required stepping on second base and then throwing to first.
“It was chaos after,” said USA coach Isaiah Gainforth. “It’s always good to be on the receiving end of those, but on the other hand, I can’t imagine how they feel right now.
“As their coach, I’m thinking I’m scoring two maybe and putting the potential winning run on second with no outs and the top of the order coming up,” he added. “It was a whirlwind finish, but we came too far to finish second.”
Both news and video coverage of the final play made national waves, with the video account earning the No. 1 spot in SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the day for Saturday, June 15. The story was also picked up by mainstream national media outlets USA Today, Forbes Magazine and Golf Digest, among others.
Although it was scored as an unassisted triple play, the ball stitches that were visible on Polega’s injured elbow in the aftermath begged to differ.
“I didn’t know right in the moment if I could’ve thrown to another batter,” said Polega of her injured elbow.
Fortunately for the Patriots, she didn’t have to throw another pitch.
“I knew as a sophomore pitcher they weren’t going to be expecting much from me,” said Polega of the way she competed. “They know I’m young and think I can get flustered, but mentally and mechanically I had to be there, and I was. I was focused the whole game.”
Gainforth loves the fire that Polega plays with.
“I always say that bruises heal but banners stay,” said Gainforth of Polega’s sacrifice. “You do what you’ve got to do to get a victory, and she didn’t have time to react.
“The play overshadowed her dominance, and it shouldn’t. Brynn’s been a beast for us all playoffs.”
From Gainforth’s perspective, it was meant to be that the ball found its way into Zimmer’s glove on the final play. An all-stater and the team’s best all-around athlete, Zimmer was the lone member of this year’s Patriots to have played on the team’s last state championship squad in 2016. It was the second of back-to-back titles for USA, which increased its softball state-title count to six with its latest addition.
“It happened so fast for me, but I just did what I was supposed to do,” said Zimmer. “It hit off Brynn, I caught it and the (K-Christian runner) was already at third base, so I touched second and was hoping Delanie (Pavlichek) was ready for my throw over to first.
“I’ve never seen a state championship end like that, or a triple play ever. It was the best send-off I could have,” she added of her final high-school game before moving on to play volleyball at Saginaw Valley State.
The state title is the first for Gainforth in his three years as USA head coach, although he was on staff as an assistant for the Patriots’ 2015 championship.
“I’m not going to say this was our goal,” said Gainforth. “It wasn’t something where we said we’ve got to win a state championship or the season’s a complete failure.
“We said we were going to look to check some boxes off, league, districts, regionals, quarterfinals, and then our mentality became ‘why not us’.”
K-Christian scored its first and only run of the game in the sixth inning, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Patriots stringing all three of their runs together in the bottom of the third. Polega earned the win, allowing five hits with two walks and 15 strikeouts in seven innings, while USA was led offensively by Zimmer going 3-for-3 with a triple and a run scored. Pavlichek added an RBI double, Maci Montgomery and Macy Reinhardt both had a hit and scored once and Polega helped her own cause with an RBI groundout.
Several members of the USA softball team got to experience the thrill of winning a state title for the first time after playing to a Division 3 volleyball state runner-up finish in the fall. One of those players, Montgomery, added that it was also nice to go all the way after reaching the softball state semifinals last year.
She had a lot to do with USA reaching the state finals with a triple and three doubles in the semifinal victory.
“Last year we didn’t get what we wanted, but to accomplish our goals this year feels amazing,” said Montgomery, like Polega a sophomore. “I came in confident, but had to stay focused because it was a whole new day and it could’ve switched up on me. I hope we can accomplish more in the coming years.”
The Patriots outscored their playoff competition by a combined 75-4.
Adam Smith is sports editor for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.