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DIVISION III SOFTBALL: Chandler, Lillard lead Needles past Bobcats

Needles’ Abby Chandler and Dakota Lillard came in as champions at the end of their freshman year.

The two senior leaders are going out on top as well.

The Mustangs rode the duo’s solid performances to a 3-2 victory over White Pine on Saturday in the Division III state championship game at The Meadows.

“My girls believed, and we battled all weekend,” Needles coach Sandy Chandler said. “These were the best three games we played all season together. Half of the seniors came in with me as state champs as freshmen, and they’re leaving as state champs. It’s unbelievable, it’s a tremendous feeling.”

With the game tied at 2-2, Abby Chandler led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a single to center field, and moved to third on Demi Limon’s double down the the left-field line.

With first base open and no outs, the Bobcats pitched to sophomore Melanie Merchain, who belted a walk-off RBI single to the left field gap to plate Chandler and grab the title.

“I got up there and did a little prayer,” Merchain said. “It didn’t hit me that she scored until I was rounding first and everyone ran to hug me.”

Lillard tossed a three-hitter with five strikeouts.

“It wasn’t easy being my third game this weekend,” Lillard said. “I just threw my hardest, gave it all I had, and it paid off in the end. It feels awesome to go in as a state champion and out as a state champion.”

Needles (26-8) pitched around White Pine power hitter Bailey Moore, who finished with three walks. The strategy burned them in the sixth inning after Moore drew a leadoff walk, stole second base, and later scored on a sacrifice fly by Jane Murdock to give the Bobcats a 2-1 lead.

The Mustangs tied it at 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth on a fielder’s choice by Andrea Merchain that plated Lillard, who had reached on a leadoff walk. Moore, pitching for White Pine, then escaped a jam with runners on second and third, by striking out Allissa Rentas.

Needles jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning after back-to-back two-out doubles by Chandler and Limon.

The Bobcats (27-13) tied it at 1-1 in the fifth on an RBI double by Shania Hall that scored Jaden Ernest. Lillard ended the threat in that inning with a strikeout of Alli Huntington that stranded runners on second and third. Lillard made a stellar catch on a hot-shot come-backer on the first pitch of the inning.

Chandler, who finished 2-for-3 with two runs, turned an unassisted double play to end trouble in the third, and had six putouts overall.

“I felt confident at the plate, but knew Bailey is a great pitcher,” Abby Chandler said. “I couldn’t be more proud of Dakota, and I’m proud of my whole team. It’s an awesome feeling.”

Limon went 3-for-4 with two doubles, and Meghan Mann supplied three hits for the Mustangs.

Moore finished with seven strikeouts, and Ernest had two walks, a single and a run for White Pine.

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