A perennial state championship contender, Grace Baptist Academy moved to within one win of securing a fourth consecutive trip to Murfreesboro on Wednesday.
Grace’s Tory Helton fired a four-hit shutout, Bethany Cowart and Reagan Schrader belted home runs and the Lady Eagles scorched rival Silverdale Baptist Academy, 7-0, on Friday to win the Region 3-A softball championship and earn a spot in the sectional round.
“We don’t know anything else but playing in state because we’ve been three straight years,” said Cowart, who smacked a three-run homer to cap a four-run third inning.
“We expect to get there.”
Grace (26-7) will host the Region 4-A runner-up, Watertown, on Friday and Walker said the game is tentatively set for 7:30 p.m.
Silverdale, which has lost all five games to Grace this season, will travel to play at Friendship, which routed Watertown, 11-1, for the Region 4-A title.
“It’s always sweet to win the region,” said Grace coach Allan Walker, subbing for his head-coach wife, Tina, who is in Utah to watch their daughter, Lacye, play with Chattanooga State’s top-ranked softball team in the junior college national tournament. “When you have to play a quality organization like Silverdale and a quality pitcher like Katie Henderson it’s never easy. My hat’s off to them. We just happened to come out on top today.”
The Lady Seahawks turned in a solid performance – again – in the title game, probably good enough to win in some other regions. However, they just happen to be locked in with Grace.
“They always get after us,” Silverdale coach Tim Couch said. “They’re a good team and we knew coming in we would have to play good to beat them. We got beat by a better team today.”
The Lady Golden Eagles, who have won district, region and sectional titles the past three seasons and claimed all five meetings with the Lady Seahawks by a combined score of 16-7, were held to one hit by Silverdale pitching ace Katie Henderson over the first two innings.
Grace went to work in the third.
Savannah Jeno reached on catcher’s interference, but was forced out at second on Erika Goodman’s infield grounder. Goodman stole second and moved to third on Lexie Dean’s single to left, one of three hits for the Lady Eagles’ first baseman.
Schrader’s hit scored Goodman and Cowart hit the first pitch from Henderson over the left-field fence for a three-run homer, her fifth.
With the homer Cowart pushed her RBI total to 47 on the season.
“Our hitting has been great in the past couple of weeks,” Cowart said. “They might not have been out of the park, but everyone’s been really consistent and getting hits and RBIs when we needed them.
“Our seniors in the one, two, three and four spots in the lineup have really stepped up this year.”
Those four seniors – Dean, Schrader, Cowart and Kaitlyn Eldrige – combined for seven hits, six runs and six RBIs against the Lady Seahawks (18-14).
“I expected that today from my seniors,” Walker said. “They came out strong today.”
Helton recognizes the importance of her teammates’ offensive prowess.
“We have some awesome sticks,” she said. “I’m really lucky to have the offense I have behind me. I’m blessed.”
Grace added two hits in each of the fifth and sixth innings for a total of eight off
Henderson, a hard-throwing right-hander who has signed with the University of Kentucky, needed 20 pitches – she threw 63 in six innings of work, 44 for strikes – to get out of the fifth.
The Lady Seahawks’ mound ace got two quick outs, but Dean singled and Schrader belted her second homer of the year, a two-run blast to left. Dean and Schrader’s hits came on 3-2 pitches from Henderson.
“That was my second home run,” said Schrader, who has 29 RBIs this season. “I got a high-and-inside pitch and that’s my favorite. She sent it right in there and I hit it where it was pitched.”
Couch brought reliever Loren Hilton in to face the Lady Golden Eagles, who finished as Class A state runner-up in 2010 and 2011, in the seventh. She promptly gave up a single to Eldridge, the team’s leader with 53 RBIs. Eldridge stole second, moved to third on a groundout and scored on Maddy Horton’s grounder to second.
Helton retired the Lady Seahawks on two groundouts and a strikeout to finish the complete-game shutout.
“I felt pretty good today,” she said. “I felt dominant.”
Silverdale, which has never advanced to the Sectional round in the nine-year history of the program, has one more shot at its first state tournament berth.
“Whether we go to Friendship or Watertown, you go there and win and we’re going to the state tournament,” Couch said. “For us, it’s a huge thing. It’s good for the program and it builds excitement for our program and school.
“We continue to improve. If you sit still you won’t be around long. We don’t plan on doing that.”
Silverdale Academy 000 000 0 – 0 4 0
Grace Academy 004 021 x – 7 8 0
Henderson, Hilton (6) and Harrison; Helton and Schrader.
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)