Chattanooga State's Amber Gainer celebrates a homerun with coach Blythe Golden as she rounds third base.
photo by Joseph Dycus
The Chattanooga State Tigers are headed to Yuma Az., where temperatures this weekend are slated to hit 106 degrees Fahrenheit. That is probably only half as hot as Amber Gainer’s bat, which swung the game in the Tigers favor in their region championship duel with Walters State.
With two runners on, Gainer drove a softball high into the air and into the deepest part of the ballpark.
Walter State’s center fielder tracked it all the way and made a valiant effort to make a leaping catch at the wall, but it went over her glove and out of play. This fourth inning shot broke a scoreless deadlock and propelled the Tigers to a 5-0 win and the NJCAA World Series in Arizona.
“Honestly the ball looks like the ball is just right there when I’m calm and focused,” Gainer said. “When I went up I was nervous and almost panting. She threw me a ball, and I stepped out and told myself I had to breathe. I made sure my muscles were relaxed, and said it’s just a ball. So I went back in there and hit it.”
For the first three innings, Chatt State’s Sam Ryan and Walter’s Ashley Milligan took turns sitting batters down in rapid succession. And for that sequence, it looked like the freshman was ready to duel with Chattanooga’s ace for seven classic innings. But after retiring her first eight batters, Marquila Howell singled and then advanced to second with two outs left.
Nothing came of this, but it showed Chattanooga had begun to figure out the pitcher. The Tigers then ran off five runs in the next two innings. Katlin Leverette (who made a slick diving catch in right field the inning before) and Ashlyn Holland set the table for Gainer’s three run shot. And in the fifth, Holland doubled in another pair of teammates to give Chattanooga State all the runs they needed.
“This is year three we’ll be going to the national tournament, and I cannot wait,” Holland said. “This year, we’ve prepared and our mindset is all the same. We’re going to go there and win it. We have the best shot we’ve ever had.”
Meanwhile, Ryan showed why she earned back-to-back Region VII pitcher of the year awards. Aside from some trouble in the second inning that she worked out of, Ryan locked Walters State down in a complete-game masterpiece. Having played in the national tournament last season, Ryan says this year’s team has what it takes to win it all.
“I think with this squad, we have a lot of fight in us,” Ryan said. “We also have a lot of depth, so I think we’ll make a good run for it.”
All year, coach Blythe Golden has watched the team grow from an inexperienced group of players to a truly cohesive team. She gave a special shoutout to Jaden Ezell, who has become one of the standout defensive players on the team, and someone who made crucial plays in the field on Thursday.
“Jaden is a defensive specialist,” Golden said. “Everyone on our team calls her J-Smooth because everything she does at shortstop is absolute money. She can make plays in the hole that are bigtime.”
When Chattanooga State’s Tigers travel to Yuma, they will be seeking their first national championship since 2012. With a team as deep and talented as Chattanooga’s, a second national trophy seems well within reach.
“It’s always great to win, and the credit goes to our players,” coach Golden said. “To see them work so hard all year and to see them have success at this stage and moment, I’m just happy for them.”
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