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Search for identity yields Horseshoe runner-up for Arabians

Apr. 7—PENDLETON — Certainly one goal for Pendleton Heights on Saturday morning was to defend its Horseshoe Classic championship in the annual gathering of some of the top softball talent in the state.

But the Arabians will also be seeking to defend Madison County, sectional and regional championships while discovering just what the team's identity will be in 2024. Aside from senior pitcher Shelby Messer, only sophomore third baseman Avry Miller is starting at the same position she played a year ago when the team stormed all the way to the semistate championship game and a 25-win season.

Once again, coach Rob Davis has determined tough early tests for his players are the best way to challenge his team and determine which pieces go where.

"We had some questions to answer, and we still have some questions that need answered," he said. "We're trying to figure out where we're at and who we are actually. ... I've got eight girls who are new to their positions, and we're trying to figure that out. We don't even know we have that right yet."

Although his Arabians came up short of repeating Saturday when they fell to Class 4A fourth-ranked Lake Central 6-1 in the title game, there were plenty of questions answered as PH showed signs of recovering from an early 0-2 start following a week off due to rain postponements.

One of those questions revolve around the team's pitching and Messer, who carried the Arabians with dynamic performances throughout the postseason run. Entering Saturday with an ERA north of 9.00, Messer turned in a pair of strong performances against two ranked teams.

In the team's opener against seventh-ranked Avon, the Earlham commit cruised through five strong innings before running into trouble in the sixth and seventh. She repeated that performance with 5 1/3 innings in the championship game, giving her team a chance to win in both instances. For the day, she threw 11 1/3 innings, allowing 19 hits with nine strikeouts and only two walks — one intentional — against top-level competition.

"She's one of those girls who can go out there and throw all day long," Davis said. "Her ball was moving, and she was hitting her spots, and we were making plays. When we started kicking the ball around, that made her throw more pitches. But Morgan came in and did a good job and got us out of it. Other than a couple balls that got out, I thought our pitchers did a good job today.

"(Messer) is a bulldog, and it's good to see her close to being back to where we were."

Senior Morgan Humble earned the win in relief against Avon after entering with a runner on second and nobody out. She retired three straight batters to end the threat, and the Arabians rallied for a pair in the bottom of the seventh to walk off the win as Kiah Hubble scored on an error.

Although Humble surrendered a two-run homer to Makayla VonVossen when she entered against Lake Central, she recorded the final five outs with no further damage.

In between, junior Ari Rector earned her first career win in the circle for PH with five innings of three-hit shutout pitching in an 11-0 win over Chesterton. All three hits came after two were out — two in the first and one in the second — before Rector set down the final 10 Trojans and struck out seven batters.

"It felt pretty good. I really was just working the corners with my fastball," she said. "I pitched once last year against New Palestine, and I just wanted to do well and earn that back."

Rector is one of the newcomers to the regular lineup after minimal playing time last season and staked her claim to more playing time Saturday — in the circle, at the plate and in the field.

Defensively, she formed a dynamic outfield tandem with Hubble as the two caught every ball hit their way in left and center. She was 5-for-10 at the plate with three doubles, an RBI and six runs.

"I've played outfield my whole life, so I know I've got to do my best," she said. "I just need to stay on top, know what pitch is next and back up my teammates."

The overall offense has struggled with runners on base early on this season, and that was a trend that continued early in the opener against Avon. The Arabians left the bases loaded in each of the first two innings and stranded two more in the third after Miller finally got PH on the board with an RBI single. In the game, the Arabians totaled 14 left on base, although that includes two who were on base when the winning run was scored in the 7-6 victory.

But, once the offense got in a rhythm, it was tough to slow down.

Alana Smith drove in three runs against Avon with a suicide-squeeze bunt and a two-run single before adding three more RBI in the win over Chesterton. In that game, she drove in one with a single and two more on her second career home run that capped a six-run fourth inning rally that set up PH for the run-rule win.

"I was not seeing the pitch early in the at-bat, but then I worked deep in the count," Smith said. "I found the one that I wanted to hit."

Katelin Goodwin also got her bat rolling with a pair of home runs — a two-run blast against Chesterton and solo shot accounting for the only run against Lake Central.

Only Sofia Calderaro could quiet PH on Saturday with a complete-game, four-hit, seven-strikeout performance.

Hubble, Skylar Baldwin and Kelsey Day were among the Arabians who enjoyed multi-hit days, adding to Davis' optimism about the team as it prepares to go after a seventh consecutive Madison County title.

"We learned a lot today and played well today, and we've got a lot more to go," Davis said.

The Arabians will open county play Tuesday at home when they welcome Elwood to Legends Field for a 5:30 p.m. first pitch.

Contact Rob Hunt at rob.hunt@heraldbulletin.com or 765-640-4886.