Skowhegan teammates hug after the win.

Skowhegan teammates hug after the win.

AUGUSTA — Skowhegan will be making its fourth appearance in the Class A softball state championship in five years, but Indians coach Lee Johnson said he’s learned in the past half decade that winning the regional final is never easy.

It certainly wasn’t Wednesday night.

The Indians’ second straight regional championship came after a battle with Oxford Hills, which pushed Skowhegan for seven innings before falling 5-4 in the Class A North final at Cony Family Field.

“It’s always exciting to win a regional championship, but this was definitely an interesting one,” Johnson said. “It went back and forth many times.

“They fought us hard all day long.”

The top-seeded Indians (17-2) had a chance to seize control early after putting the first three batters on in the bottom of the first, but Oxford Hills freshman pitcher Lauren Merrill got out of the jam allowing just one run, thanks to snagging a liner headed straight for her to end the inning.

“That first inning, when that line drive was hit to the pitcher, that’s a big play right there,” Johnson said. “If that ball gets through, now we’re up 3-0 instead of 1-0.”

After a quiet second inning, the third-seeded Vikings (13-6) found some offense and in the third and took the lead. With one out, Kenzie Kahkonen walked and took second on a wild pitch, Merrill hit an infield single, and Hannah Kenney reached on an error to bring home a run. Madison Day then perfectly placed a bunt a few feet down the first-base line to score pinch runner Brooke Carson and give Oxford Hills a 2-1 lead.

The lead was short-lived, however. Sydney Reed and Ashley Alward hit consecutive singles with one out, then Lindsey Warren reached on an error to drive in the tying run.

The Indians took the lead back in the fourth thanks to a lead-off single by Wylie Bedard, another error, and a wild pitch.

“We made more defensive errors today than we probably have all season,” Oxford Hills coach Cindy Goddard said. “I think it’s just the whole jitters, that it’s such a big game. They don’t play relaxed, they’re probably really tight, so when the ball comes, it’s like more fidgety, when it’s if normally in a game situation they’re relaxed.”

Despite having errors piling up, the Vikings were able to take the lead again in the top of the fifth. Merrill and Day sandwiched singles around an error that Kenney reached on to start the frame. Day’s single inside the third-base line brought home two runs.

“I think we did the things that we needed to do offensively,” Goddard said. “The first couple innings (Alward) was really striking us out, and then we kind of made the adjustment. Took them awhile not to go after the riseball, even though we’ve told them all three games don’t go after riseball.

“They’ve been in the situations where they’ve been down this year and they just keep battling, and that’s what they did today. They kept battling and battling.”

The bottom of the fifth was a battle in itself. The Vikings battled the bouncing ball, which was not kind. The Indians took advantage, putting each of the first four batters on to score a run and tie the game. But with the bases loaded and no outs, Merrill did what she does best — induce groundballs. Three straight went to the left side of the infield, and shortstop Kaisa Heikkinen and third baseman Kahkonen combined to get each one and fire it home to catcher Anna Piirainen in time for the force out.

“That’s what I’m used to, that kind of defense, I’m used to seeing that,” Goddard said. “So when they don’t produce that, then it’s (surprising). I think they backed Merrill right up.”

There was little Merrill or the Oxford Hills defense could do in the botom of the sixth when Alyssa Everett and Sydney Ames hit consecutive lead-off singles right up the middle. An error two batters later after Alward put the ball in play scored Everett for what turned out to be the winning run.

“It always feels good to drive in runs,” Alward said. “I’ve been struggling hitting a little bit, and just to come up with a couple groundballs when we needed them, and just place it right, was good for the team.”

Alward then took the circle and made all three outs to close out the win, securing a bunt before striking out the final two batters. She finished with 12 strikeouts.

“It’s always good to have strikeouts. I rely mostly on my strikeouts, normally not as many walks,” Alward said. “I haven’t had that many (strikeouts) for a little while, the last two games haven’t been that many, and it’s nice to have those back like I’m used to.”

“That kid takes a lot of pressure off our defense,” Johnson said. “The field was playing very hard today. It wasn’t just us. I think Oxford Hills had some problems with some balls too, where the ball was definitely bounding on a hard infield. Ashley took a lot of that pressure off our defense for the most part.”

Wednesday was the end of the road for the Vikings, who were trying to reach their first state championship since 1999.

“I’m proud of these guys. We started off 2-3,” Goddard said. “It comes down to who puts all three components together — pitching, hitting and defense — and two out of the three were good, but that wasn’t good enough.”

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A tearful Kaisa Heikkinen listens to the awards ceremony after the game.

A tearful Kaisa Heikkinen listens to the awards ceremony after the game.

As Skowhegan celebrates in the background, Oxford Hills coach Cindy Goddard makes her way to the bench.

As Skowhegan celebrates in the background, Oxford Hills coach Cindy Goddard makes her way to the bench.

Oxford Hills’ Madison Starbird fields a ball at second base before throwing to first to get the out.

Oxford Hills’ Madison Starbird fields a ball at second base before throwing to first to get the out.

Oxford Hills’ Madison Starbird gets the outs at first base on a slow roller early in the game.

Oxford Hills’ Madison Starbird gets the outs at first base on a slow roller early in the game.

Oxford Hills’ Lauren Merrill delivers a pitch early in the game.

Oxford Hills’ Lauren Merrill delivers a pitch early in the game.

Skowhegan’s Ashely Alward kept the vikings off balance all night with her speed and rising fastball. Here, she delivers a pitch in the 1st inning.

Skowhegan’s Ashely Alward kept the vikings off balance all night with her speed and rising fastball. Here, she delivers a pitch in the 1st inning.

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