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Apollos beat Mountainside, Aloha to clinch Metro conference crown outright

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior shortstop Abby Wingo made two critical plays for the Apollos in a 1-0 over Mountainside.

In a symbolic way, it's almost fitting that the player who weathered a five-win freshman year, whose team that same season finished in the cellar of the Metro League, was the one who helped finish Sunset's 180-degree turnaround from worst to first.

With a crack at bringing the Apollos one pace away from clinching the Metro crown outright and at worst splitting the championship Sunset senior shortstop Abby Wingo shone brightest.

Locked into another pitcher's duel between Sunset's Grace Kimball and Mountainside's Kacie Schmidt, staring at a 0-0 tie in the top of the seventh, Wingo blasted an RBI double off the Maverick centerfielder's glove to give Sunset a 1-0 lead.

Then, with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh, Wingo corralled a ricochet off Kimball's glove in the infield and fired to a stretched out Lainey Wier at home to nab the lead runner for the all-important, lead-preserving second out. And Kimball finished the shutout by coaxing a groundout to Maddy Terhune at second, clinching a 1-0 win over the Mavs at Mountainside High School on May 10.

Sunset, who just three years ago was the conference's sacrificial lamb for the league's elites, now sits atop one of if not the most competitive district in the Class 6A classification. By beating the Mavs, Sunset ensured it would at least split the conference championship with Westview. But by taking down Aloha 4-2 on May 13, the No. 2 Apollos (20-5, 9-1 in Metro) took the title all to themselves, breaking what had been a long-standing reign of Metro dominance from Westview and Jesuit.

"We wanted the title for ourselves, we didn't want to share it," Kimball said.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Mountainside junior Kacie Schmidt only allowed one run against Sunset last week.

Sunset is new blood, a breath of fresh air to a conference that could use a shakeup in the hierarchy if nothing more than to improve the competitive parity. And the Apollos have proved themselves worthy of such adoration, sweeping both the Crusaders and Wildcats as well as the Mavericks. All three teams were pegged to finish higher than Sunset when the 6A preseason coaches' poll came out back in March. Then, the Apollos didn't receive a single vote despite returning all but two seniors off last year's team that won 18 games. Now they're the undisputed champs.

"I think we have the right people," Wingo said. "Coming in the expectations were just so low. It had been a couple of years of struggling to get wins. Sophomore year we started to turn it around. Last year we thought we could be really good. And this year we knew this was the year to go for it."

Wingo said the Apollos underwent an all-encompassing culture change that started at the top when head coach Montana McNealy took over before Wingo's sophomore season.

"Montana has done a really good job of making this about the team," Kimball said. "Our big thing is playing for the team before ourselves and playing for the name on the front of our jerseys. We're only going to be successful if we're playing for the outcome of the team. If you're playing for your own batting average or own stats, that doesn't work. You need nine people playing for the same goal."

The 2020 graduating class infused talent all over the lot with the likes of Kimball, Mikaela Byrnes, Jade Wood and Kate Fogle. And seniors like Wingo, Terhune and Kendra Knapp stayed around the program even when wins were hard to come by. The upperclassmen core stayed intact, taking their lumps collectively as young players, but growing as a group, learning how to win and play as one unit. They're a super tight squad as a result, one that doesn't flinch in the face of strife.

"I think I spend more time with my teammates than my family during softball season," Kimball said with a laugh. "We all love to hang out with one another at practice or outside of practice."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset junior Grace Kimball pitched a shutout against Mountainside last week.

That chemistry was surely tested against a Maverick team that could very well be next in line for Metro greatness. Kimball and Schmidt were both awesome, trading strikeouts and zeroes on the scoreboard for the first two innings. Each danced out of precarious scenarios with poise and precision. Sunset put runners in scoring position in the fifth and sixth innings, but Schmidt was up for the task, sitting down some of the Apollos' most dangerous hitters in the process.

However, in the seventh, Sunset struck. With one out in the top of the seventh, Byrnes pounded a ball down the third base side into the cavernous left field corner of Mountainside's home park. The junior rounded second with no intention of settling for a double got a full head of steam and slid safely into third on a bang-bang play. Then Wingo whopped a ball to center that was too hot to handle for the Maverick outfield and scored Byrnes to break the tie and give Sunset a 1-0 lead.

"We've done it before, so it wasn't like it was foreign territory," Wingo said. "It wasn't anything new, so we were just calm about it."

But Mountainside countered, loading the bases after two walks and a single with one out for junior shortstop Madison Cochell, one of the Mavericks' top hitters. Cochell connected on a Kimball offering that glanced off of the Sunset right hander's glove. The Maverick runner at third, waiting to see if Kimball caught the ball to avoid getting doubled up, smartly held up until the ball skipped toward the middle of the infield. Yet that hesitancy gave Wingo enough time to move into position to scoop the fragment. Then the Seton Hall signee fired an on-the-money shot to Wier protecting the plate, who sagely stretched her body out like a first baseman to meet the ball out front and herself plenty of time to get the force out at home.

"First of all I was sad that I didn't catch it," Kimball said with a laugh. "But (Wingo) came up so strong to field that ball that there was no doubt she was getting that ball at home. It looked easy to her. She was really clutch."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset sophomore catcher Lainey Wier reaches out for a critical out against Mountainside.

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