WINTHROP — The question of whether sophomore pitcher Lauria LeBlanc can, on a reigning regional championship team laden with seniors, be a difference maker for the Madison softball team may have been answered Wednesday afternoon.

Locked in a pitcher’s duel with Winthrop junior Layne Audet, each hurler matching the other with one scoreless frame after another, LeBlanc held steady long enough to anchor a 1-0 Madison win with a one-hit shutout of the Ramblers in a key early-season Mountain Valley Conference contest.

The unbeaten Bulldogs (5-0) scratched out a run in the top of the sixth inning and let LeBlanc do the rest, as she retired 11 of the final 12 Ramblers she faced to see out the victory.

“It’s hard and it’s nerve-wracking,” LeBlanc said of inheriting the starting role this season. “I do get nervous, but I try to keep it in. I know my team is there to back me up and we can come out on top.”

Madison scored its run when leadoff hitter Ashley Emery slapped a one-out single to right, and Whitney Bess followed with a beautifully dropped bunt out in front of home plate. Emery never slowed as she rounded second on the sacrifice play, ending up at third with two outs.

She scored on a wild pitch two pitches later.

“(Emery’s) basically on her own,” Madison coach Chris LeBlanc said. “She basically has the green light (on the sacrifice play). By the time I recognize it and tell her to stop or go, it’s usually too late. With her speed, that’s what we like to do.

“Get them to third, and then a lot of things can happen.”

ACE PERFORMANCE: Lauria LeBlanc rounded into form as the game wore on Wednesday, battling her way through nerves and an unfamiliar diamond in the early going.

After walking four Ramblers over the first three innings, LeBlanc found her stride. She allowed a one-out single to left in the fourth but finished off the day by retiring 11 of the final 12 she faced — pitching around an error in the seventh — with nine strikeouts.

“I was trying to find my rhythm,” she said. “(Catcher Ashley Emery) started calling a lot more off-speeds, and that helped me, too. It got them off balance and helped me to slow down my rhythm, too.”

Chris LeBlanc liked what he saw from his sophomore pitcher.

“She’s getting better,” he said. “She’s a sophomore and we’re only in game five, so we’ve just got to keep her focused.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: Chances to score runs were few and far between in this one, but Winthrop coach Chuck Gurney lamented the chances the Ramblers let pass by early.

Winthrop went 0 for 3 with runners in scoring position over the first four innings, allowing LeBlanc to strand all those walks on base.

“I felt like sooner or later, if we kept getting that runner at second base, someone was going to get a blooop hit or hit one in the gap. There’s some good hitters in our lineup,” Winthrop coach Chuck Gurney said. “Their pitcher did a good job keeping us off-balance. I tip my cap to her.”

Bryana Baxter reached on an error to begin the bottom of the seventh, but she was stranded at second when LeBlanc struck out both Samantha Allen and Maria Dostie — both on called third strikes — to end it.

“It just came down to who was going to get that one hit at the right time,” Gurney said. “They got the hit when they needed it.”

STAT LINE: Madison’s Aishah Malloy went 2 for 3, collecting two of the Bulldogs’ five hits off Audet. … Audet allowed five hits and the one earned run, striking out five and not issuing any walks. … The bottom third in the Winthrop lineup went 0 for 7 with five strikeouts. … Baxter, a sophomore first baseman, had the only Winthrop hit.

UP NEXT: Madison hosts Carrabec on Friday at 4. The Cobras are 5-1 overall and winners of five straight. … After losses to MVC heavies Oak Hill and Madison in succession, Winthrop is at Hall-Dale Friday.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter; @TBarrettGWC

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