OAKLAND — Ryan Gero’s team certainly has a way of keeping him on his toes.

In its first two games of the 2022 season, Gero’s Gardiner softball team has needed its offense to come through to edge out victories. Against Erskine Academy and Edward Little, defensive miscues forced the Tigers to win relatively tight ballgames by scores of 7-5 and 12-9, respectively, despite the team pounding out more than a dozen hits on both occasions.

Gardiner defeated Messalonskee 2-1 on Friday in a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference clash in Oakland. The Tigers got a solid outing from pitcher Lainey Cooley and an improved defensive effort in the field to overcome an 18-strikeout performance from the Eagles’ Morgan Wills.

“I get emotional talking about them because they’re a special group,” a misty-eyed Gero said following the game. “I’ve had these girls since they were 8, and they just don’t quit. Their pitcher threw a great game, but we stuck with it and put it all together today.”

Wills’ dominance in the circle kept Gardiner hitless over the first three innings, a stretch that included a four-strikeout second after a runner reached on a dropped third strike. Yet the game remained scoreless entering the fourth as Cooley escaped jams in the first and third despite allowing two hits in both frames.

It took only a single pitch in the fourth inning for Gardiner to take advantage, as Taylor Takatsu smacked a towering home run to center field to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. Wills, though, would bounce back by retiring the next six batters, and Messalonskee (1-3) then found a run in the bottom of the fifth as Maddi Wilson scored on a sacrifice fly.


In the top of the seventh, Gardiner was presented with a gift as Cooley advanced to second base after a routine fly ball was dropped in the outfield. Two batters later, the sophomore would score what would be the winning run on a base hit from Grace Plourde after a Messalonskee error on the throw.

“I didn’t know if I could [make it all the way home or not], but I knew I had to go for it and try to take advantage,” Cooley said. “When she didn’t catch it, I just started running and hoped for the best, and it worked out.”

Cooley, who escaped another jam in the second as she forced back-to-back ground balls to end the game, finished with 10 strikeouts for Gardiner. The Tigers had three hits, two from Takatsu and one from Plourde, while Messalonskee got two hits from Peyton Alexander and one each from Wills, Wilson, Lexi Bayne, Jordan Lambert and Elise McDonald.

Gardiner High School pitcher Lainey Cooley (6) delivers a pitch to a Messalonskee High Schoo batter in Oakland on Friday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Gardiner’s defense showed a stark improvement from the Tigers’ previous games against Erskine and Edward Little. The team’s only error on the cold, windy afternoon came in the bottom of the seventh, and Cooley followed it with three straight outs to end the game.

“We knew we had to really work on our defense, so that’s what we’ve been doing all week in practice,” Cooley said. “Making sure we did that was our main focus today, and we executed and supported each other.”

Adjustments at the plate were an important factor in Gardiner’s aforementioned wins earlier in the season. Although the Tigers failed to hit the ball with the same consistency Tuesday, a decision Gero made just before Takatsu’s fourth-inning home run proved vital to the win.

“I told her, ‘Hey, let’s go back to the slashing style, and let’s try to speed up our bat speed going through the zone,’” Gero said. “She came around perfectly and absolutely got all of that one. That was huge, and it was really what gave us a spark.”

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