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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Whitehall’s softball team celebrates its district championship last Saturday in Ludington. The Vikings beat Newaygo in the finals, 2-1.

LUDINGTON — Whitehall earned a dramatic district championship Saturday at Ludington, winning the championship game in walk-off fashion over Newaygo 2-1. The Vikings beat Ludington earlier in the semifinals, 10-0.

"It probably took a year or two off my life, but it worked out in the end," Whitehall coach Denis Koegel laughed.

Alyssa Taylor delivered the game-winning hit for the Vikings in the seventh inning, a hard grounder that bounced over the third base bag and stayed fair, allowing Paige McFarren to score the winning run. McFarren was at third after making a hustle play to reach the base on a single by Illeana Hatcher.

The Vikings scored in the first inning to take a 1-0 lead when Taylor, who had tripled in the inning, came across on a passed ball. The Lions tied it up in the fifth on a sacrifice bunt to score their star catcher, Hayden Mckenna, who had crushed a ball into the gap of the cavernous Ludington field for a triple earlier in the inning.

However, that was the only damage done against Whitehall pitcher Kyleigh Martin, who dominated both games in the circle Saturday. She allowed only three hits to Newaygo and struck out 15 batters without a walk.

"Any time we were in a jam, Kyleigh would just strike people out," Koegel said.

"They couldn't touch her other than (Mckenna's triple)...She had a heck of a day on the mound. She made it pretty easy on our defense."

The championship fulfilled a goal the Vikings had set to begin the season, despite the fact that they had little experience coming into the year - so little, in fact, that Martin, who is naturally a shortstop, was enlisted to pitch.

"We set that goal at the beginning of the season because we didn't know who we were as a team," Koegel said. "We'd lost seven senior starters, and most of our girls were playing new positions for the first time at any level, let alone varsity. We knew it would be a work in progress. We knew we'd have our ups and downs. The girls brought everything together when it counted and that was really exciting to see."

The semifinal game was an easy one for Whitehall, which won in five innings due to the mercy rule. Martin allowed just one hit and struck out 10 against one walk. Onnyka Dempsey had two hits and two RBI in the semis, and Taylor also had two hits. Makenna Russell drove in two runs for Whitehall.

With the win, Whitehall advanced to play Big Rapids in the regional semifinals this Saturday in Cadillac. The teams met in the regular season, and the Cardinals swept two games. Martin, though, only pitched one, and that one was the closer of the two, a 5-0 game in which the Vikings made some miscues. Koegel believes his team is better prepared to face Big Rapids this time around.

"Kyleigh is hitting her spots consistently now and pitching better than she did on May 3," Koegel said. "Three starters will be out this week. It's going to be an uphill climb. But if we come out and execute, we should have a chance."

Those three starters are not out for injury or for illness; in an incredible coincidence, Alyssa and Alexis Taylor's mother Amanda is marrying Dempsey's father Tommy Saturday, so those three players will be at the wedding.

"I offered to officiate the wedding (at the regionals), but they understandably turned that down," Koegel joked. "Our focus has been on getting through districts and seeing what happens. Luckily, it's not like this was something that was sprung on us. We're working on getting the girls comfortable in new positions and enjoying the experience, because it doesn't come around often. We know anyone can beat anyone on any given day."

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