EVERSON - The seams were coming undone as Blaine's three-run lead quickly began to deteriorate in the bottom of the fifth.
Nooksack Valley, up until that point, had done little to shake Borderites senior starter Alexis McElwain. She had only allowed one hit through four innings, and the Pioneers had yet to advance a runner beyond second.
Two errors and two walks into the fifth, and Blaine had seen its comfortable lead shrink to one with only one out and runners on first and second. If there was ever a point Borderites coach Alisa Burk needed her senior pitcher to show her mettle, it was then. She answered with an inning-ending double play to defuse Nooksack Valley's greatest threat, finally leading to a 3-2 Northwest Conference victory on Thursday, April 10, at Nooksack Valley Middle School.
McElwain tossed a complete game, allowing just two unearned runs while scattering three hits and striking out three.
"That was probably one of the toughest pitching performances she's given us in a long time," Burk said of McElwain. "Even when she had a couple innings where it started to get away from her, she bounced back and she was able to find the zone again and stay strong all the way through."
Her significance wasn't only limited to what she did in the circle, providing a 3-for-4 day from the plate that included an RBI single in the first that scored Lyric Berry, who added three hits, an RBI and a stolen base.
But from the onset, McElwain said her feel from within the circle was strong. All the things a pitcher needed, she had.
"I felt really confident. My warm-up today was on point," she said. "My arm was loose and I knew I could do it."
She had the benefit of an early lead, providing the first-inning RBI, but the offense continued to get the better of Nooksack starter Kayla Struiksma in the second inning.
Hanna Kiele, following a deep fly ball by Baylee Foster that reached the warning track, got ahold of one that sent Pioneers center fielder Lindsay Hayes again back to the wall only to watch Kiele's shot sail over to give Blaine a 2-0 lead. It was Kiele's first home run of her career, and a welcome sight for Burk as her junior first baseman had been falling into a slight slump.
"She hasn't been her normal self of late, so that was a good thing for her to do because she got the long ball," Burk said. "She's seeing it well."
The Borderites played add-on, piecing together three hits and a walk in consecutive at-bats, leading to an RBI single by Berry before Struiksma induced an inning-ending double play from Mikayla Deming.
"I thought Kayla worked herself out of some jams, and we got a couple early we worked ourselves out of and hung around," Nooksack Valley coach Tom Harmon said.
Neither team managed much from the plate until the Pioneers began to get to McElwain, albeit by using a more disciplined plate approach in the bottom of the fifth.
After Cassidy Zylstra reached on an error, McElwain walked the next batter, prefacing a throwing error by catcher Lexi Greguski that allowed both runners to score. McElwain then issued another free pass and hit to Arlissa Oettel and Melanie Brown in respective at-bats, balancing a one-run lead that looked more and more fragile by the moment.
"At first I was getting scared because sometimes my arm gets sketchy," McElwain said.
Her thought when facing Hayes with one out and two runners on was to give her something she could hit. McElwain did just that, forcing a weak grounder to third that led to a double play.
Neither the Pioneers nor the Borderites were able to plate any runs in the final two innings, with McElwain capping a strong pitching performance by retiring six of the final seven batters she faced.
For Harmon and the Pioneers (3-3, 1-2 NWC), the lack of hitting was disappointing, he said, but their willingness to fight back wasn't.
"All you need to do once you get behind is scrap, scrap, scrap, and we scrapped pretty well," he said. "When we got that opportunity, those are the types of times you want to strike and you want to make the most out of them. We're not quite there yet, but if you're not there in April and you are in May, that's OK."
For Blaine (5-2, 2-0), it was its second straight conference win by two runs or less, a growing trend speaking to the toughness of this team, Burk said.
"The last two, three games we've played, we've had to fight to get those wins," Burk said. "We haven't given up all season."
Reach Alex Bigelow at email@example.com or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for other Whatcom County sports updates.
BLAINE 3, NOOKSACK VALLEY 2
Blaine 120 000 0 - 3 11 2
Nooksack Valley 000 020 0 - 2 3 0
WP: Alexis McElwain. LP: Kayla Struiksma. Highlights: Blaine: Alexis McElwain 3-4 RBI, Hanna Kiele 1-3 HR RBI, Lyric Berry 3-4 R RBI, Selena Pai 1-3 R. Nooksack Valley: Melanie Brown 1-3, Lindsay Hayes 1-3.