HAMILTON — Loyola Sacred Heart's pitching had been the story for the team's last four games ahead of Monday's nonconference softball matchup with Hamilton.
Senior Kayla Hickethier and junior McKenna Bessette had combined to throw four no-hitters in a row and the Class B-C Breakers had won six straight games overall.
But it was the Broncs' Maria Gutierrez — making her first career varsity start — that stole the headline in Hamilton. The slight-statured senior with big and bold eyeglasses threw a complete-game five-hit masterpiece to lead Class A Hamilton to a 2-1 win. The Broncs' Mikayln Brickley again had a monster day at the dish — the junior shortstop is batting .413 with a 1.491 OPS this season — as she hit a home run, a triple and scored both runs to help Gutierrez's gem stand.
Gutierrez, filling in for the Broncs' resting ace, Jorden Taggart, was admittedly nervous before the game.
"You can ask my whole team, I was just kind of out of it. I didn't want to talk too much because I didn't want to jinx myself," said Gutierrez, who struck out six in the win. "But once I got in the circle, it all kind of went away."
The senior did have three tenuous innings to close out the game, however. After Brickley's first-pitch home run in the bottom of the fourth inning gave Hamilton an impressive but precarious 1-0 lead, Loyola broke through for its first hit. A leadoff single from Loyola's Carly Tipp and an Emily Hermes double put Breakers on second and third with nobody out in the top of the fifth inning.
Guttierrez struck out the next two batters she faced, though, and she coaxed a 5-3 groundout to end the inning.
In the top half of the sixth, Loyola starting pitcher McKenna Bessette tried to help her own cause with a two-out single. She advanced to second on a passed ball and likely would have scored had Kayla Hickethier's sharply hit grounder made it through the infield on the ensuing play.
Brickley, though, made a half-diving stop, kicked up the infield dust deep in the hole near second base and threw out Hickethier at first to quell the threat.
"My teammates were just great. My third baseman Sophia Doyle came up to me and said, 'Hey, shake it off, just trust your defense,'" Gutierrez said. "...As soon as I see that ball hit (toward them), it's just instant relief. It's awesome to know my defense has my back."
After the saved run, Hamilton earned on of its own in the home half of the sixth.
And it was Brickley who again supplied the big hit.
The Broncs No. 3 hitter led off the bottom of the sixth inning, and she smoked the seventh pitch of the at-bat into left field for a triple. Four pitches later, cleanup hitter Maggie Ringer brought Brickley home with an RBI ground out to give Hamilton a 2-0 lead.
The insurance run paid immediate dividends. Loyola got base hits from Tipp and Hermes to turn the top of the seventh into another high-stress inning for Gutierrez.
A sacrifice bunt from Morgan Hall moved Tipp and Hermes into scoring position with just one out. A shallow base hit from Casey Donahue cashed in one of those runners to keep the pressure alive and cut into Hamilton's lead 2-1 still with just one out, and a walk to Hellie Badaruddin loaded the bases for Loyola.
But Gutierrez got the last two outs of the game to get out of the jam — and secure her game-ball worthy performance — by coaxing an infield pop up and a fly ball to Maggie Ringer in center field.
"I'm just so proud of her. She's only ever pitched JV, so she really stepped up to come out here and shut them down," Brickley said of their team's spot starter, who pounded the outside strike zone with a self-described "screwball." "We really needed that and I think she (deserved) that too. It's a great way to end the season."
Gutierrez's win somewhat overshadowed another impressive pitching performance for the Breakers. While Loyola was denied its fifth straight no-hitter (that number alone is amazing), the Breakers did see Bessette strike out 11 Broncs in just four innings of work. Loyola actually out-hit Hamilton 5-4 and Hickethier added another two innings of relief with a strike and just one run allowed.
"Our pitching and defense was great today... Those two (Bessette and Hickethier) push each other because they're both good pitchers," Loyola coach and McKenna's dad, Brian Bessette said. "...We just gotta hit the ball. What more can I say?"
Gutierrez's win also provided Hamilton's normal No. 1 starter, Jorden Taggart, with some much-needed rest ahead of Hamilton's conference showdown with Frenchtown. Frenchtown leads the Southwest A at 6-1 (11-5 overall), but the team's one conference loss came to Hamilton back on April 11.
In that one, Taggart threw a complete-game shutout and racked up seven strikeouts.
But Hamilton (5-2, 12-2-1) needs to win again against Frenchtown to maintain the head-to-head tiebreaker and leapfrog the rival Broncs in the standings.
That means Tuesday's showdown in Frenchtown at 7 p.m. is big.
"(Taggart) has been working her tail off. ...She went four games in Frenchtown, then we had Corvallis on Thursday, Butte Central on Saturday and then today," Hamilton coach Dave Kearns said. "...We had to find a day to give (her) a day off, and it was a perfect day."
And the Broncs got a near-perfect performance from Gutierrez to match.