By Al Muskewitz, East Alabama Sports Today
OXFORD — The Piedmont softball team played in the state tournament for the first time in the fast-pitch era and was out to do more than just be there.
The Lady Bulldogs fared better than a lot of wide-eyed first-timers. They scored their first-ever fast pitch state tournament win in their first-ever fast pitch state tournament game Friday when they blanked Mobile Christian in their Class 3A opener 2-0 at Choccolocco Park.
“Game One down,” the Lady Bulldogs said as they exited the dugout from the game.
The next two games didn’t go as well. The Lady Dogs dropped a 10-7 winner’s bracket decision to Plainview and then were eliminated by Houston Academy 11-1 in five innings.
“It’s so meaningful to me (to win the first game) because this is what we’ve been working for the whole time,” Piedmont coach Rachel Smith said. “This is what we talk about at practice when it gets hard. This has been the big goal.
“This is why we work with our pitchers and why we work so hard in the weight room. This is always the big goal. To finally be able to come here and do it I think it’s just going to help our girls continue the work that we’re doing and know that it’s going to be this meaningful when we get here.
“This has been so much fun. I’m just hopeful we’ll continue to build on this for the future.”
In the win, the Lady Bulldogs (26-25-2) broke a scoreless pitcher’s duel between Bell Neil and their own Savannah Smith in the fifth.
Emily Farmer started the rally by getting all the way to second on a throwing error by third baseman Dakota Skelton. Laken Hilburn was inserted as a courtesy runner and she scored when Jenna Calvert ripped a single into center field. The Lady Dogs were denied another run in the inning when Edy Gavin cut down Calvert at the plate trying to score from second on Smith’s single into short centerfield.
They added an insurance run in the sixth on Cayla Brothers’ RBI single to center.
“It’s just a gutsy performance by our team as a whole,” Rachel Smith said after the game. “The defense played outstanding. We got hits when we had to have hits. Our pitching was outstanding.
“This is what we wanted to do when we came here – prove that we belong – and I think we just did.”
The Lady Leopards threatened several times in the game, putting runners in scoring position in the third, fourth and fifth innings – sometimes with less than two outs – but every time Savannah Smith turned them away.
“She’s as tough as a pine knot,” Rachel Smith said. “I trust her with the ball in situations like that because I know that she thinks she can win against every batter.”
The Lady Bulldogs were last in the state softball tournament in 2000 (slow pitch) — when they reached the finals — and played in the slow-pitch sub-state in 2001. They played their first fast-pitch season in 2002.
“I feel like we showed everyone here what we’re really capable of,” Savannah Smith said. “We made a lot of good plays that were great. We hit the ball really good. We just showed out today.”
The crowd was partisan Piedmont and it pulled out all the stops. The crowd was in full throat and injured Armoni Perry broke out the Viking horned helmet for the player introductions.
There’s a story behind the Viking helmet.
Apparently, the players took it with them the last time they played in the regionals, then stashed it in a storage bench in the locker room when they returned. Perry found it the Monday after they had returned from this year’s regional in Montgomery with its state tournament bid in tow.
Her teammates encouraged her to wear it as “rally gear” and she made it her own. “I guess it’s like a good luck thing,” she said.
The Lady Dogs didn’t have much luck in their next two games.
In the winner’s bracket game they made four errors that led to early runs, Plainview’s Tessa Word had a no-hitter for 4 2/3 innings and the Lady Bears batted around in the fourth to take a 7-0 lead.
But the Lady Bulldogs came to life in the late innings. Savannah Smith broke up Word’s no-hitter with a two-out, two-run double in the fifth inning. Smith had a three-run double on the heels of Jenna Calvert’s two-run opposite-field single to make it 10-7 in the sixth.
Piedmont brought the tying run to the plate with one out in the seventh inning, but couldn’t get them home.
“We were still in that thing right up until the very end,” Rachel Smith said. “Just a swing or two away against a very good Plainview team and then we ran into Houston Academy.”
The 40-win Lady Raiders jumped on Piedmont from the start. Their first three hitters all singled and all scored in a four-run first inning that had the Lady Dogs playing catch-up the rest of the game. Smith the coach took the blame for not having Smith the pitcher better prepared to enter the circle and took her out after an RBI triple extended Houston Academy’s lead to 4-0.
Piedmont scored its only run on Z’Hayla Walker’s leadoff homer in the fifth. The Lady Raiders shut down any attempt by Piedmont to put anything together by turning four double plays.
“Everybody here is good; they’re here for a reason,” Rachel Smith said. “I’ve known what kind of team we had all along, but I would see flashes of it in spurts. In the regional tournament all of it started coming together. It’s like we peaked at the right time and that’s what you want to do at the end of the season.
“I hope this is something we can build on for the future. I told the girls this is now the expectation, that we’ve laid the groundwork and now we’re just going to try to build on this and continue to improve our program.”
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