Three years ago, prior to Paul Jennings taking the reins of the Thomas Johnson softball program, there would have been little to no chance of the Patriots pulling off a suicide squeeze to win a game.
Even this season, with a seasoned softball coach like Jennings in charge and much more experienced players on the roster, TJ has failed to execute in key situations.
But, presented with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the seventh inning of Friday’s home game with Oakdale, the Patriots rose to the occasion.
Sophomore Haley Jaconski laid down a bunt that rolled between the pitching circle and third base, and freshman Sydney Gonciarz slid across the plate before the tag could be applied to lift Thomas Johnson to a 5-4 victory over Oakdale.
“These past two games, we have really started executing,” Jennings said. “Today was a prime example.”
Facing Oakdale sophomore Saylor Kneeland, who had effectively held the Patriots in check for most of the game, TJ (11-6) cranked up the pressure during its final at-bat.
Gonciarz reached on an error, then moved over to third on a single by junior Jenna Maradei.
With first base open, Oakdale (7-10) elected to intentionally walk the clean-up hitter, Winter Hawk, to load the bases.
So, Jennings had his best baserunner on third in Gonciarz and Jaconski, a sophomore center fielder, coming to the plate.
Since the Patriots had struggled in these types of situations, Jennings was hesitant to put on the squeeze. So, at first, he didn’t. Jaconski fouled off the first pitch she faced.
But then, showing some faith in a player he has only coached for one year, Jennings instructed Jaconski to bunt.
“Sydney gets a good jump [on base],” he said. “I knew if [Jaconski] got it down, we are scoring.”
Earlier in the seventh inning, Hawk, TJ’s lone senior and the team’s workhorse pitcher, worked her way out of a bases-loaded jam with one out.
“My heart was pounding,” Hawk said.
During Hawk’s freshman season, the Patriots won one game. It was a miserable season, she said.
In the three years prior to Jennings taking over the program, TJ had won six combined games.
By contrast, Friday’s win marked the 28th for the Patriots since Jennings became their coach in 2017. This season alone, they have beaten traditional Frederick County powers such as Urbana and Linganore.
“We have a lot of hope for this team,” Hawk said. “I think we are a force to be reckoned with, and people are starting to see that around the county.”
Meanwhile, Oakdale, which has been battling the injury bug all season, is hoping to regain some momentum heading into the playoffs.
“Typically, they always give themselves a chance to win,” Bears coach Sean McChesney said of his players. “That’s all we can ask for. It can’t be your day all of the time.”