East Lansing — For all seven innings, Portage Central senior pitcher Gina Verduzco tried to block out distractions and focus on the task at hand.
One out, two outs, three outs.
In what could have been her last high school game, she did everything she could to help her team prevail. Everything included throwing a no-hitter — and getting a go-ahead hit in the sixth inning to help Central advance to the softball state final.
Behind Verduzco stellar pitching and clutch hitting, Central stifled Utica Ford, 1-0, in a Division 1 semifinal Thursday at Michigan State University’s Secchia Stadium.
Central (42-3), looking to get its first state title since 1977, advances to Saturday’s championship game, where it will face Bay City Western, which topped Romeo.
Verduzco gave up just two walks, in the second and third innings, and finished with 11 strikeouts, including fanning the side in the seventh. She said she had no idea about the no-hitter, though.
“Did I really?” she asked after the game. “I don’t notice. My job is to hit my spots and get outs and that’s all I notice during the game.”
But there was no denying the key hit in the game — Verduzco’s RBI single that scored Lea Foerster, who reached on a single and moved to second on a sacrifice by Taylor Snyder.
“Lea got on and she was in great position and when (the count) got to 3-1, I just had to focus myself and I said we needed a base hit,” Verduzco said. “It’s the most memorable (hit).”
Verduzco finished 2-for-3 with a pair of singles for two of Central’s six hits. Central coach Tom Hamilton said Verduzco had only five walks total before the state tournament started and had four in one game.
That control helped her settle down in a tough scoreless game in the sixth inning.
“She’s got a ton of composure. If there’s a person we’ve got on this team that I want (pitching) — she’s got that bulldog mentality and she’s been through a lot of big games,” Hamilton said. “Unfortunately, she’s lost a lot of big games over the years, so this is her moment to shine out there.
“She got beat last year in the districts to Mattawan on a walk-off home run in a 5-4 ballgame. She’s been in games where she’s been on the other end and it was so nice to see her be on this end of it.”
Ford (30-9) reached the first state semifinal in school history and set a school record for wins in a season.
“We hit balls hard right at them and made plays when we needed to make plays. It’s a tough break — they get one and we couldn’t generate anything offensively,” coach Matthew Joseph said. “If you get beat 7-3 or 8-2, you’re not (thinking), ‘Woulda, coulda, shoulda,’ but 1-0 is tough.
“We wanted to get someone on and try to get her over to second and try to generate a run. We just couldn’t generate any offense.”
Bay City Western 2, Romeo 1: The road to a state final is not an easy one. But after a runner-up finish last season, Bay City Western is going to get another chance at a championship.
With a sixth-inning flurry, Western rallied for two runs and took a thrilling 2-1 victory over Romeo in a Division 1 semifinal on Thursday. Western moves on to face Portage Central in Saturday’s title game.
“They wanted to get back for a chance to redeem themselves. We have that opportunity and I’m really proud of my kids,” Western coach Rick Garlinghouse said. “They welcomed that pressure from the beginning of the year.
“We had trouble playing regular-season games because they wanted to get right to the postseason. I said we had to play our schedule to get better.”
Romeo (31-8) scored first, on a home run by Morgan Gardner in the fourth, and senior pitcher Taylor Weaver gave up just two hits through the first five innings.
“That was the first home run hit off me all year and I don’t like the feeling, obviously,” Western senior pitcher Hannah Leppek said. “I was determined not to let anything stop me from the next batter and the next pitch.
“You have to trust in yourself and trust your skills that the next person won’t do that and you’re better than the batter.”
Western (40-3) got better in the sixth inning, getting the runs it needed to move ahead. Ashtyn Decatur was hit by a pitch and scored on Leppek’s RBI double. Kelsie Popp followed with another RBI double for the decisive scores.
“She’s starting to learn how to be a clutch hitter, isn’t she?” Garlinghouse said.
Romeo had a chance to tie it in the bottom of the inning, as Kayla Noch had a two-out double and moved to third on a wild pitch, but Weaver grounded out to end the rally. In the seventh, Romeo got two runners on with one out, with a walk to Danielle Szajna and an error, allowing Erin Barg to reach. But Leppek struck out Breanna Olley and a pop-up ended the game.
Garlinghouse wasn’t overly worried with the seventh-inning rally and his best pitcher in the circle. Leppek, who tallied six strikeouts, got the win for Western.
Portage Central 1, Utica Ford 0
Bay City Western 2, Romeo 1
Final: 10 a.m. Saturday
Livonia Ladywood 4, Wayland 3 (10)
Stevensville Lakeshore 7, Croswell-Lexington 4
Final: 12:30 p.m. Saturday
Gladstone vs. Coloma, 10 a.m.
Unionville-Sebewaing vs. Clinton, noon
Final: 3 p.m. Saturday
Vestaburg vs. Kalamazoo Christian, 3 p.m.
Fowler vs. Rogers City, 5 p.m.
Final: 5:30 p.m. Saturday