At crunch time in Wednesday’s District 5-3A softball showdown between Soddy-Daisy and Walker Valley, the Lady Trojans delivered two heavy jolts to the Lady Mustangs.
With the score tied at 3-3, Emily Higgins belted a two-out home run in the fourth inning.
In the top of the seventh, Baylie Davis smacked a leadoff homer that easily cleared the left-center field fence and disappeared into the trees.
Then, relief pitcher Stephanie Blevins nailed down a 5-3 victory that clinched the regular-season championship and secured the tournament’s No. 1 seed by retiring Walker Valley in order in the bottom of the seventh at Larry Haney Field.
“I felt pressure when I was off the field,” said Blevins, who worked 4 2/3 innings one-hit relief and didn’t give up a run. “When I was (in the circle) I took deep breaths and didn’t think about it. It was just like every other game.”
The Lady Trojans (27-11, 11-1) now have time to refresh and prepare for hosting the district tournament at Clifford Kirk Stadium starting May 3.
“We’re done with district play and we can relax, have some fun and get ready for the tournament,” said Soddy-Daisy coach Travis Hale, whose squad has one more non-district game scheduled with Whitwell on April 29.
Wednesday’s win avenged an earlier 9-1 loss to Walker Valley on April 2.
Walker Valley coach Lauren Limburg and her squad were disappointed in the outcome, but there is a silver lining. In 2018, the Lady Mustangs lost to Ooltewah in the district and region tournaments. The Lady Owls and Walker Valley posted sectional wins and both went to the Class 3A state tournament. The Lady Mustangs eventually finished runner-up to Powell, losing the title game, 2-1.
“I think every loss is disappointing,” she said. “I want to win every game. I’m a competitor, my girls are competitors and the season isn’t over by any means.”
In April, Walker Valley’s Natalie Pruitt threw a four-hitter against the Lady Trojans and didn’t give up a run after the second inning. At one point she retired 13 straight before yielding a single to Laci Mercer in the seventh inning.
“I told the girls to be disciplined at the plate today,” Hale said. “We had a game plan and it was some aggressiveness and discipline and it worked out for the best.”
The aggression came as the Lady Trojans went after first-pitch strikes and didn’t get cheated on many pitches.
In the first inning, Courtney Sneed laced a single to left on Pruitt’s first offering. Blevins intended to put down a sacrifice bunt, but instead punched an almost line-drive bunt over third baseman Hailey Leslie and the ball rolled to the edge of the outfield grass for a hit. Laci Mercer did lay down a sacrifice bunt and Sneed scored on Javaria Smith’s sacrifice fly to center.
The Lady Trojans padded their lead to 3-0 in the third inning.
Davis led off with a double and moved to third on Sneed’s hit up the middle. Pruitt struck out Blevins and Mercer smacked a clutch two-run single to center.
“This was about as good as we’ve played,” Davis said later. “We played so good and I’m so proud of us. It feels awesome.”
The Lady Mustangs (21-9-1, 8-2) jumped right back into the game by pushing across three runs in the third, thanks in large part to two Soddy-Daisy errors.
Jaicy Olivas hit a groundball to third baseman Hope Ingle, who fielded the ball cleanly and then fired a throw over the head of the head of Davis at first base. Dangerous leadoff batter Carissa Frost lined a shot to left field where Sneed had a bead on it but the ball hit Sneed’s glove and fell to the ground. Michele Benson followed with a two-run double.
Hale brought Blevins to the circle without hesitation. Blevins walked Kaylee Hughes but displayed toughness by striking out Katelyn Howell and retiring Hannah Cate Singleton on a harmless fly ball to center.
Those two outs started a string of six straight for Blevins, who walked Benson with one out in the fifth.
“I knew if Walker Valley hit the ball my teammates would have my back,” Blevins said. “We always have each other’s backs.”
The Lady Trojans regained the upper hand in the fourth. Fugatt was hit by a pitch, but Jayde Baron put down a bunt and the Lady Mustangs’ defense turned it into a crowd-pleasing double play.
Higgins then smashed her home run on a 1-1 pitch.
“I got a rise-ball and went with it,” she said. “I caught it and took it for a ride. I went up there calm and kept my cool. I waited for a pitch, she (Pruitt) threw it right there and I swung with all my might.”
In the Soddy-Daisy fifth with two out, Pruitt appeared to take herself out of the game, with Hailey Leslie coming on in relief. Limburg said that wasn’t the case.
“It was my decision to make the change,” she said. “Just my decision.”
The Lady Mustangs mustered another scoring threat in the bottom of the fifth and Blevins reached down for a dose of guts and beat back the threat.
Blevins fanned Frost, who went 0 for 4 with one run scored. Benson walked. Laney Harris singled to center and Hughes walked to load the bases. Javaria Smith fielded Howell’s ground ball and fired home to catcher Jayde Baron in time to nail the sliding Benson for the second out.
Singleton grounded out second-to-first to end the threat.
“Stephanie came in and was on fire and throwing the ball well,” Hale said.
Blevins’ courageous effort preserved the 4-3 lead and she retired the final seven to end the game.
Davis’ solo blast in the seventh took some pressure off Blevins and the Soddy-Daisy defense. She struck out Frost – she can manufacture runs by herself at times – for the second straight time. Benson flied out to center. Harris grounded to second and Mercer bobbled the ball before retrieving it and throwing to Davis at first just in time to record the final out.
“I knew I couldn’t throw anything close to the middle of the plate against (Frost),” Blevins said. “I had to hit the corners and make her swing at my pitches.”
How did Blevins go after Benson?
“She’s a really good hitter and can hit just about anything,” Blevins said. “I had pitch her outside and that’s what the last pitch was, a curveball even farther outside.”
And what about Harris’ final ground ball to Mercer?
“Even when she bobbled the ball, I knew she would make the play,” she said. “She was cool and collected.”
NOTE: Concession revenue at the game was targeted for 5-year-old Olivia Weatherford, who is battling cancer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
“I want to thank coach Limburg and Walker Valley for doing this fund-raiser for the young 5-year-old girl,” Hale said. “That’s very special and we’re glad to be a part of it.”
East Hamilton 5, McMinn County 3: In the only other league game today, the Lady Hurricanes notched their 20th win of the season with the deciding runs coming in a three-run fifth inning.
Syerra Rogers scattered nine hits – the Lady Cherokees also had nine – and helped her own cause by going 2 for 3 with two RBIs.
Reese Knox was 3 for 4, Syvana Rogers 2 for 4, Shelbie Sholtz 2 for 2 and Ally Sue 2 for 3 for the Lady Canes (20-12, 7-5).
Bailey Grubb and Ashley Baxter each had two hits for McMinn County (13-18, 2-9).
Soddy-Daisy 102 100 1 – 5 9 2
Walker Valley 003 000 0 – 3 5 0
Higgins, Blevins (3) and Baron; Pruitt, Leslie (5) and Singleton.
McMinn County 000 003 0 – 3 9 0
East Hamilton 001 130 x – 5 12 2
Brazell and J. Mizell; Syerra Rogers and Savana Rogers.
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)