No matter what happens throughout the rest of May, one truth is inescapable: Chesapeake softball owned Anne Arundel County in 2019.
That’s the inarguable fact after the Cougars turned in a top-notch performance to defeat Severna Park 6-1 in the county championship game at Bachman Park on May 7. Senior pitcher Haley Downin was excellent, surrendering only four hits and striking out nine in a complete-game lockdown of Severna Park’s powerful lineup. Cougar freshmen Norah Hart (two hits including a double and two RBIs) and Ali Pollack (two singles, one RBI and one run scored) led the charge offensively for Chesapeake, which improved to 15-3 on the season and paired its in-season county championship (for the county’s best regular-season record) with a one-off county title game victory.
“It’s really nice to win it our senior year, because it’s our last year, and you want to go out big and win the whole thing,” said Downin. “It’s really nice having so many freshmen and knowing that we’re going to keep building because everyone is so young, so winning something like this is a big milestone.”
This year, the matchup carried extra heft and history, as the reigning 4A state champion Falcons won last year’s county championship game over Chesapeake before going on a run to the state championship.
Downin’s pitching efforts and an opportunistic Chesapeake lineup made sure to even the score with Severna Park.
After retiring the Falcons’ first three hitters in order in the top of the first inning, Downin helped her own cause in the bottom of the first, reaching base on a leadoff single. Sophomore Tristyn Stewart benefitted by reaching on a fielder’s choice before stealing second and coming around to score on a single by Pollack — Chesapeake had a quick 1-0 lead and never trailed from that point.
Sophomore Jerzie Nutile singled to lead off the fourth inning and scored on an RBI double by freshman Sophia Bianco. Bianco stole third base and, after a walk to Charli Smith, came home on a passed ball to make the score 3-0.
Having struck out the side in the fourth inning and the first two batters in the fifth inning, Downin had her only blemish, if it could even be called that, in the fifth when she gave up a two-out solo home run to Severna Park’s Campbell Kline. Kline, a longtime summer club teammate of Downin’s, is the most fearsome hitter in Maryland high school history, sitting on a still-climbing state-record 183 career hits after her solo shot.
Kline’s blast to deep right center field was the Falcons’ lone bright spot on the evening, and it ultimately didn’t even matter. Downin came back to strike out the next batter, getting her sixth straight out on a strikeout, and Chesapeake bounded into the dugout with energy and momentum.
“I just went in there and threw the best pitches I could each time,” said Downin. “Each batter I tried my hardest to work individually, move on after each batter no matter what happens.”
The Chesapeake lineup moved on, too. Pollack led off the sixth with a single, Smith walked, and both plated on a roped double by Hart. Hart came around to score on a line-drive RBI single by freshman Devan Wenger, and Chesapeake led 6-1.
Downin retired three Severna Park batters without danger in the seventh to clinch the county championship for the Cougars.
Hart and Pollack were cool-as-can-be performers on the big stage as freshmen.
“It’s great to represent Anne Arundel County and our school,” said Pollack, who noted the team’s support and growth. “Our JV really supported us through the whole thing, and they really helped us. We’ve gotten a lot better since the beginning. We figured out how to work as a team and pick each other up when we’re down.”
The county-championship win came one day after the Cougars were awarded the regular-season county championship. Though it comes with much less fanfare — the Cougars received their in-season championship plaque at practice on May 6 and snapped a quick team photo — it is arguably the more difficult and notable accomplishment in a county as cutthroat as Anne Arundel, and Chesapeake’s spring is full of impressive wins over strong teams.
The Cougars lost on April 1 to rival Northeast, 5-4, but from there, they banked win after win. They defeated Severna Park 5-0 on April 16, powered by another Downin gem and a 2-for-2 day by Kexin Wang, who homered and doubled in the victory.
Chesapeake also avenged its neighborhood loss by coming from behind to defeat Northeast 6-3 on May 1. Wang (2 for 2), Smith (2 for 2 with two doubles), Bianco (2 for 3), Stewart (2 for 4) and Downin (3 for 4) shined offensively as the Cougars overcame an early deficit to win, and Downin pitched past early trouble to earn the win.
Chesapeake coach Don Ellenberger, who started four freshmen (Hart, Pollack, Bianco and Devan Wenger) against Severna Park and carried five (Kendall Thomas) on the roster this spring, said it took a little while to best deploy Chesapeake’s load of talent.
Now, they’re doing as Chesapeake softball has done many times in the past: playing better and better as the season progresses.
“Not many people are crazy enough to try to [start four freshmen], but they’re my best players at the time, and that’s who we play,” said Ellenberger. “At the beginning of the year, we had a lot of people who we really weren’t sure what positions they should be in. … Today was probably one of the most complete games we’ve played all year. A lot of that credit goes not just to the players but to Haley hitting her spots and shutting down an unbelievable team.”
It was the second county championship in the tenure of the current seniors, who defeated Arundel in the county title game in 2017.
That Chesapeake split with Northeast in a season the Cougars otherwise dominated is perfect for Pasadena pride and rivalry lore, but the Cougars know they need repeated strong efforts to take the region — and, ultimately, the state.
“We’ve got to take today’s game and repeat it five more times,” said Ellenberger. “If we can pitch and catch and hit close to this, we’ll be a tough out in the tournament. But if we don’t show up on any given day, someone will knock you out. That’s what I told them. I said, ‘I’m proud of what you did today, but you’ve got five times you’ve got to repeat this, because somebody is going to be ready to kick your butt.’”
Stewart and Nutile, both sophomores, are excited for what the team can accomplish.
“The biggest thing we need to do is believe in each other,” said Stewart.
Nutile said the energy is with the Cougars as they embark on the region tournament.
“Coming into this, I knew we were good,” said Nutile. “As a whole, all of our attitudes together, is going to create a good pathway to success. Our team, we have something special, and we’re going to go far.”