DAGSBORO — The whole thing turned around completely in a heartbeat.
In one instant, Polytech High’s Hayley Friess looked like she was out, the throw home arriving well before her.
But, in the next instant, the softball had rolled free and Friess was safe.
That one bang-bang play, in the top of the seventh inning, made all the difference as the fourth-seeded Panthers pulled out a dramatic 5-3 win over top-seeded Delmar in the DIAA softball state semifinals on Thursday afternoon.
After avenging its only loss of the season, Polytech (20-1) will face No. 3 Caravel (16-5) in the state finals on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Red Lion Christian.
In their semifinal on Thursday, the Buccaneers knocked off two-time defending state champion Laurel in an equally-dramatic, 3-1, eight-inning decision.
Trailing 3-0, Henlopen Conference champion Delmar (18-3) came storming back against the Panthers in the sixth.
Shelby Murphy launched a solo homerun before, two batters later, Alison Pusey belted a two-run homer to left center that tied the contest at 3-3.
Polytech, though, seemed unfazed by the Wildcats’ comeback.
Friess smacked the first pitch in the top of the seventh over the centerfielder’s head for a double. After being bunted to second, Friess came charging home on a grounder off the bat of Kailey Perry.
Friess slid under catcher Pusey before the ball came loose.
“I saw that she had the ball so I knew I had to go in hard and try to get it out,” said Friess. “That was my only hope. ... I saw the ball drop right when I was sliding. It felt great. I knew that was the go-ahead run.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, she’s out, that’s not good,’” pitcher Shaina Reed said about watching the play. “Then I was like, ‘The ball dropped, it’s right there.’ Then he called her safe. It was a game-changer. ... We were like, this is supposed to go our way.”
Delmar’s infield was playing in when Friess broke for home on the grounder.
“On those kind of bang-bang plays, it’s up to the kids,” said Polytech coach Jen Bradshaw, who was coaching third. “We coach them during practice as to what’s the best thing to do in situations. In that quick of a play, it’s on the player and she thought she could make it.
“When you go in sliding, anything can happen like that. That’s a tough play to make for a catcher. She did the best job she could.”
Polytech added an insurance run in the seventh when Perry scored on a single from Taylor Pechin. Reed then set Delmar down in order in the bottom of the seventh to finish off the victory.
The senior pitched a three-hitter with five strikeouts as the Panthers reached the state finals for the second time in the last three years.
Even after she surrendered the two homeruns in the sixth, Reed said her teammates stayed behind her.
“Anything can happen and it did,” said Reed, one of only three Polytech seniors. “I had all the faith in my girls. I knew that I messed up but I knew that they had my back. They were all like, ‘We got it. You’re OK.’ I knew that they would pick me up in the dugout and that’s what they did.
“I’m so super-excited that we’re going to the championship.”
“They really showed some perseverance,” said Bradshaw. “Delmar did a great job of coming back when they were down all game. Our kids were resilient today. They weren’t giving in.
“I think they knew they were going to score,” she said about her team’s attitude going into the seventh. “They made up their minds they were going to score. You could see it all over their faces. They knew they were going to score a run that inning.”
The Panthers got off to their usual fast start with a pair of runs in the first. Perry and Reed both had bunt singles and later scored while Pechin had an RBI single.
Polytech made it 3-0 in the second when Amanda Waishes reached base on an error and later scored on a single by Brandi Dalious.
Delmar loaded the bases on a hit batter and two walks in the third. But Reed got out of the jam with a strikeout.
The Wildcats, though, finally broke through in the sixth. Murphy and Pusey sandwiched their homers around a single from Haley Rogers.
Reed had a no-hitter going until then.
“They played with a lot of heart, a lot of passion,” said Delmar coach Michelle Niblett, whose team beat the Panthers, 6-2, on April 30. “It’s just a great group of kids. They just kept right on fighting and didn’t give up.
“You need everything to go your way when you’re playing a good team and we had some things that didn’t go our way.”
On Saturday, Polytech will try to win the program’s first state title against a Caravel team that has won eight crowns. But the Bucs’ last championship came in 2011, with Henlopen squads Sussex Tech and Laurel combining to win the last three.
The Panthers edged Caravel, 2-1, on May 9.
“Making it (to the finals) is a feeling of accomplishment but we want more this year,” said Bradshaw. “We want to go all the way.”
Caravel 3, Laurel 1: The game was scoreless until each team scored a run in the seventh inning.
The Buccaneers then scored twice in the eighth to pull out the semifinal victory.
Senior pitcher Regan Green went 3-for-3 and had 13 strikeouts for Laurel.
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.