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Pitcher Grace Kimball, Apollo offense continue to impress, move toward Metro title

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset junior Mikaela Byrnes bashed a three-run home run against Jesuit last week.

Sunset's unbelievable season is no form of serendipity sent from the softball gods.

The Apollos have positioned themselves not only overtake the established Metro League elites atop the conference standings but make the kind of Class 6A postseason run that lasts long into late May. There's an unshakable authenticity to the Apollos and with each week Sunset continues to show and prove it's worthy of such lofty status.

Paced by ace pitcher Grace Kimball who's proving she's just as clutch as she is untouchable in the circle and a three-run moonshot homer from Mikaela Byrnes, Sunset beat Metro behemoth Jesuit 3-2 in a thrilling league matchup at Sunset High on May 1.

In a season full of resounding victories ranging from sweeping Jesuit to dethroning Westview not once but twice, clocking Glencoe and a nearly pulling off an all-time upset of Tualatin, No. 4 Sunset (17-5, 7-1 in Metro) is staking its claim as a title contender.

"For us, it never matters who is in the other dugout, it's only about the people in our dugout," Kimball said. "We play for our team and for each other. We know as long as we play our game and play our best, then we can beat whoever is in the other dugout, it doesn't matter what the name is on their jersey."

In a pitcher's duel pitting Kimball against up-and-coming sophomore Ellie McClaskey, it was Byrnes who landed the deciding blow in the bottom of the third. Kayla Kemp and Maddy Terhune both reached on infield singles, which brought up Byrnes with two outs. Looking at a 2-2 count, Byrnes belted a towering three-run blast to left that was flushed from the moment of impact and cleared the fence by a number of feet, arming her ace and close friend Kimball with a 3-0 lead.

"As soon as I hit it, it felt solid off the bat and it just felt amazing to get those runners in and do anything I could to help the team," Byrnes said. "Turning third (base) and seeing all of my teammates going insane is the best feeling."

"That was the breaking point," Kimball said. "As soon as (Byrnes) hit that, it turned the game and lit a fire under everyone. It was like 'Now we're going to win this game'. I know I can be completely confident in my lineup every time they go up that they're going to produce."

Jesuit didn't go off meekly, as one would expect with all-league players such Sammie Petitt and Maya Williams in the lineup. The Crusaders loaded the bases with two outs and scored on a wild pitch to close within 3-1 in the top of the fifth. But with runners in scoring position and a full count on Kacy Lyman, Kimball reached back and ripped a rise ball past the Crusader righty for strike three and the final out of the fifth. Jesuit loaded the bases again in the sixth with two outs, as the field umpire blew an obvious third out tag attempt by Terhune on the base paths, which kept the inning alive. Then, Hannah Brink walked with the bases full to bring Jesuit within 3-2. Yet freshman Ainsley Davis, facing a full count, hit a comebacker to Kimball who calmly gloved the chopper and lifted a throw to first for the hard-earned third out.

And in the seventh Kimball struck out Pettit, got Lyman to ground out on a sweet pick and throw by Terhune and struck out Williams on something nasty off speed for her 10th strikeout of the game and final out of a crazy contest that tested Sunset's mettle.

"The way we've fought through adversity is so impressive to me," Kimball said. "We've all been playing together for a year or even longer. Having that chemistry helps. But really there's not much you can do to learn how to face adversity besides going through it and learning from your mistakes and that's what we've done."

"Our coaches preach 'Control what you can control,'" Byrnes said. "That's such a good example. Everything is not going to go our way, but we can still end up on top. The calls don't matter. We didn't let that get to our heads. I think we did a good job of not getting down on ourselves this game and kept fighting."

Kimball and her comrades have commanded the league's respect by sheer willpower and resume building wins. Sweeping Jesuit and finally getting past Westview last month were sound statements that Sunset isn't some bolt from the blue. They're earning the respect of the state's elite with its great play, which the Apollos so craved when they entered the spring unranked and overlooked. Kimball has the lowest E.RA. in all of 6A, allowing just 50 runs on the year. The second-closest Metro team in that category is Mountainside with 74. Kimball's penchant for strikeouts has strengthened and the defense around her with Byrnes, Terhune and Abby Wingo holding it down is elite. Plus, there isn't an easy out in the batting order with Byrnes, Wingo and Knapp pacing the offensive production. Winning Metro is admittedly in the back of the Apollos' minds, but at the same time, Kimball said, Sunset is centered on conquering each game as it comes. So far it's a methodology that's worked wonders. Sunset is now the talk of Metro.

"You can tell the difference when teams come to play us," Byrnes said. "The energy is different. They're coming out with their hair on fire also because they know Sunset is a team you need to play hard every game. All of these wins have been good, close games where we've had to fight for the win, so it feels good to come out on top."

Kimball threw all even innings, allowing two runs on three hits and striking out ten. McClaskey lasted six innings, allowing four hits and three runs while striking out three. Kimball, Wingo, Byrnes and Lainey Weir each had a hit. Sunset shut out Westview 6-0 on May 3 and has just two league games left: a road contest and home regular-season finale versus Westview on May 13.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset junior Grace Kimball has allowed just 50 runs all season long, the lowest total in all of Class 6A.

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