East Lansing — Molly Carney dreamed of facing Clarkston on the big stage of the State Finals since arriving in high school at Howell.
Carney made the most of her opportunity Thursday night in leading No. 3 Howell to a hard-fought, 9-6 victory over No. 2 Clarkston in a Division 1 semifinal game at Secchia Stadium.
Carney, a junior and Notre Dame commit, had given up just one run in the last three postseason games entering the semifinals and that was an unearned run in a 9-1 quarterfinal rout of Canton Tuesday night.
But, Carney was facing a Clarkston lineup which included several Division I commits, including junior shortstop Sierra Kersten (Michigan), junior catcher Hannah Cady (Northwestern), junior first baseman Abbey Tolmie (Central Michigan) and senior pitcher Olivia Warrington (Detroit Mercy).
Howell — which entered with 62 home runs, one off the state record held by New Baltimore Anchor Bay — was trying to advance to the championship game after losing to KLAA rival Hartland in last year’s semifinal.
Howell (36-3) opened up a 6-1 lead in the fourth, only to see Clarkston pull even at 6 in the sixth before Howell scored three in the top of the seventh, highlighted by Skye Grant’s RBI double to left on an 0-2 count, followed by Carney’s two-run opposite field single to right which was also on an 0-2 count.
Howell jumped on Warrington for three runs in the top of the third. And, it started with a lead-off single by No. 9 hitter Maddy Heilner who took third on a one-hop double off the fence by Utah-bound AJ Militello. Both scored on a one-out single to center by Maddie Gillett, who later scored the third run on an RBI double by Maddie Springer.
Clarkston (36-3) came back with a run in the bottom of the third and could have scored more, but Warrington popped out to the catcher to end the inning with the bases loaded.
Anna Skvarce and Tolmie singled and Carney hit Cady to load the bases with two outs and Kersten reached safely on an infield single to score Skvarce before Warrington popped out.
Then, Howell knocked Warrington out of the game in the fourth, scoring three more times to open up the 6-1 lead. And, Howell started the rally after two outs with Heilner getting a walk and scoring on Militello’s bloop triple to right.
Clarkston didn’t help itself in the fourth, committing two errors in the inning, including an error on Kara Johnson’s bunt to score Militello and another on Avrey Wolverton’s liner to third to score Johnson.
Clarkston scored in the fourth on a home run by Nyah Ansel to pull within 6-2, but again it could have scored more, but stranded runners on second and third when Carney struck out Mac Ming to end the threat.
Clarkston’s bats stayed alive in the fifth and this time it scored three runs to cut the deficit to 6-5 with Cady getting a leadoff triple, Kersten walking and Cady scoring on Warrington’s RBI single, followed by Kersten scoring on Sam Wycoff’s single and Ansel scoring on a wild pitch.
In the bottom of the sixth, Clarkston pulled even with a two-out rally. After Carney hit Cady, Kersten followed with an RBI double, but was stranded when Carney struck out Warrington to end the inning.
Carney had a rare 1-2-3 inning in the seventh — a ground out to the pitcher, pop up to first and ground out to third — to help Howell punch its ticket to the championship game.
All games at Secchia Stadium, Michigan State, East Lansing
Warren Regina 4, Bay City Western 0
Howell 9, Clarkston 6
Final: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
Escanaba 2, North Branch 1
Stevensville Lakeshore 8, Eaton Rapids 1
Final: Saturday, 10 a.m.
Schoolcraft vs. Dundee, 3 p.m.
Millington vs. Standish-Sterling, 5:30 p.m.
Final: Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Unionville-Sebewaing vs. Rogers City, 12:30 p.m.
Coleman vs. Kalamazoo Christian, 10 a.m.
Final: Saturday, 3 p.m.