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Softball: Denmark outlasts East Forsyth in nine innings
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Denmark shortstop Jessie DeNardo applies the tag Saturday during the Danes' 3-2 win over East Forsyth. - photo by David Roberts

Jessie DeNardo seldom gets second chances. 

But in the sixth inning Saturday afternoon, with Denmark trailing East Forsyth by a run, DeNardo skied a long fly ball down the left-field line that sent Cali Marshall sprinting to catch up with it. The ball twisted and fell into foul territory, evading Marshall's best effort. 

Suddenly, DeNardo had her second chance.

On the next pitch, DeNardo smashed a solo home run over the wall in center field to tie the game 2-2. Taylor Gajdik delivered the game-winning RBI double three innings later to give the Danes a 3-2 win over East.

"When I hit that shot down the line, I was like, 'Oh, she definitely caught it. I'm definitely out,'" DeNardo said. "Then the next pitch I was like, 'She's giving me another chance to hit the ball. I can't waste this opportunity.' Honestly, I thought I hit it off the end of the bat."

DeNardo flashed her defensive skills later that inning, and throughout the game. 

Shelby Conway singled with one out in the bottom of the sixth, then Averi Norwalk pulled back a bunt and sent a blooper just over Ellery Campbell's head and into right field to give the Broncos runners on first and second with the top of the lineup due.

Leadoff hitter Ava Cowart smoked a line drive that went straight to DeNardo, who tossed to Campbell at second to double up Conway and end the threat.

That marked the last time East had a runner in scoring position until the bottom of the ninth, when Cowart led off the inning with a single then moved to second on Emily Hutcheson's sacrifice bunt. 

But Gajdik induced a pair of popups and Denmark held on to win.

"We've been talking about playing seven innings, because we'll be great for four or be great for five, then we'll fall apart in the middle and can't overcome that huge inning we give up," Denmark head coach Savannah Huffstetler said. "I think it's youth a lot, too."

Denmark delivered nine full innings Saturday.

East raced to a 2-0 lead in the first inning, as five of the Broncos' first six batters reached base. 

Hutcheson doubled, then took home on a double steal. Moments later, Cali Marshall reached base on a single and Emma Smallwood doubled her home to give the Broncos a two-run cushion. 

Meanwhile, Cadence Alberty was dealing in the circle.

She struck out seven of the first nine batters she faced and finished with 13 strikeouts. Alberty, a freshman, also reached 100 strikeouts for the season despite the loss. 

"We viewed this as a playoff game," East head coach Dan Weber said. "We knew Denmark would be good, and they were. For us to just compete, that's all we do. I think they go out and compete every time. We never gave up — even right there at the end. I mean, we had a girl on second."

DeNardo was at the heart of Denmark's first run, too, when she drew a walk, took second on a wild pitch and scored following a two-out error. 

DeNardo's at-bats improved incrementally against East. Alberty struck her out in her first at-bat, but DeNardo walked her second time up, homered in her third plate appearance and sent a sharp lineout to left field her fourth time up. 

"We faced her in a scrimmage the first game," DeNardo said of Alberty. "Coming back, I know she's progressed a lot. It looked different. The first game I think I went 3-for-4, but she's come a long way. I think just seeing her the first at-bat, I was like, 'Oh, it looks a little bit different, a little bit faster, a little more spin."

Denmark received two hits from Gajdik, including her game-winning double to right field that plated Kiersten Bell. 

"Hitting-wise, that's Taylor's best day start to finish, for sure," Huffstetler said. "We know she can smoke it. That's why she's in the six hole, because we know the power's always there. From start to finish, that's her best offensive game by a mile, and thank goodness it happened today because it wasn't like that for most of our hitters today."

In the circle, Gajdik held East scoreless over the final eight innings and earned the win in an impressive performance.

After a shaky first inning, Gajdik buckled down and scattered six hits and struck out seven batters — eight total — stranding runners in scoring position on three separate occasions. 

"She was missing her spots, kind of in the second and sort of into the third," Huffstetler said. "Coach Rick and I were talking, 'Hey, we're batter-to-batter at this point. Hey, we're just going to give her one more.' Then she would get the next out and we would go, 'OK, one more.' Then she would get the next one and we'd go, 'OK, one more inning.' Somehow she just kept getting better and better as the game goes. You look up and she's thrown nine full innings."

Alberty and Smallwood each went 2-for-4 to lead the Broncos, while Marshall finished 2-for-5 with a run scored.

The loss marks East's first defeat since Aug. 21, which came at the hands of another Class 7A program, Mill Creek. 

East carried a 12-game winning streak into Saturday's matchup and owns a 3 1/2-game lead over Cherokee Bluff in the Region 7-3A standings. The Broncos clinched the season series over Cherokee Bluff, winning 5-2 and 8-1, and will face the Bears one more time Sept. 28.

"We're 14-0 in the region. I think we're feeling pretty good about it," Weber said. "White County has played us tough, North Hall, Cherokee Bluff, so everybody's getting better in our region. We've still got business to take care of. Now the goals have changed a little bit. Now we're trying to win the region. Before it was just, 'Let's make the playoffs.' Now we've got to find a way to win the region."

Denmark [11-7, 6-4 Region 6-7A] will travel to Cartersville on Monday before resuming Region 6-7A play Thursday with a doubleheader against Lambert, while East [16-4, 14-0 Region 7-3A] is back in action Monday against East Hall.