DAYTON -- Getting ahead early was a high priority for the Dayton High School softball coming into the first game of its Northern 3A playoff series against Spring Creek on Friday afternoon. The Dust Devils did just that when they scored twice in the first inning and then rode the pitching of Nicole Greer to a 2-0 victory in the opener of the best-of-three series to qualify for the 3A state tournament.
The two teams meet again today at 10 a.m. at Dayton. A second game, if necessary, will be played at noon to decide a berth into the four-team 3A state tournament next week.
Last Saturday, Spring Creek scored 23 runs on 31 hits to sweep a doubleheader that knocked Lowry out of first-place and gave Dayton possession of the No. 1 seed coming into the playoffs. Those offensive numbers -- not to mention Dayton's narrow 2-1 and 6-4 regular season wins over Spring Creek -- were valid reasons why coach Dusti Houk wanted to score early against the No. 4 seeded Spartans.
"We scored first and that's what I wanted," Houk said. "We wanted to get ahead early. It takes a little pressure off the pitching once you get that lead. Then Nicole can relax and get in a groove and that's exactly what she did."
Greer followed a similar script because the sophomore right-hander worked ahead on the count most of the way and finished with a two-out shutout. She only had five strikeouts and allowed no walks against a potent Spring Creek lineup.
"Nicole has been pitching very well lately. Her control for the last half of the season has improved tremendously," Houk said. "They are a very good hitting team and she was able to shut them down."
Greer didn't have too much room to relax, though, because Spring Creek sophomore Katie Brunson was equally effective in her four-hit performance. After she allowed four hits in the first two innings, Brunson retired 12 of the last 13 batters she faced. Seven of those 12 putouts were handled by shortstop Leah Wetzel, who was also part of a 1-6-3 double play to end a Dayton rally in the second inning.
Dayton committed three errors in the field, but only one of those runners got as far as third base. Meanwhile, Greer got 12 outs on ground balls and benefited from some other nice plays as well. Among those, shortstop Kaitlen McKinnon came up with a diving catch of a soft line drive up the middle to end the fourth inning. With rain falling in the seventh, right fielder Keeli Garcia recovered from a slip on the wet turf and caught a fly ball for the second out of the inning.
"I know I can trust my defense," said Greer, who pitched 12 no-hit innings in a doubleheader sweep of Yerington last Saturday. "Kaitlen's catch at shortstop was very god. When they play like that, it's a lot easier for me."
Greer contributed at the plate in the first inning, even if she never got her bat on the ball. Garcia slapped a single past shortstop and Natalie Malekos slapped a single past first base to lead off the inning and then Lacy Taylor slapped a single to right to load the bases with one out.
"We've been working on making contact this week and hitting that outside pitch and I thought especially in that first inning we hit the ball well," Houk said. "That's exactly what they need to do, to take that outside pitch to right field."
Greer was hit by a pitch to bring one run home. Then, moments later, Viena Cabrita was grazed by another pitch to score another run and give the Dust Devils their 2-0 lead.
The Dust Devils are now 27-4-1 overall for the season and have won 16 of their last 17 games.
"We haven't been to state in my four years here and I'm so excited to win this game," Dayton senior first baseman Rachel Hurt said. "It's just really neat to be playing softball this well."