"Fall down seven times, get up eight."
That's the tag line to a popular sneaker commercial that saw extensive airtime during last season's NBA playoffs. In it, Miami Heat guard Dwayne Wade is shown repeatedly getting knocked to the floor, only to rise up each time through strength and determination, ready for more.
That might also be a good way to describe the Melbourne Lady Bearkatz on the softball diamond. They qualified for the Class 1A State Tournament championship with a thrilling 2-1, extra-inning win over their neighbors from Izard County Consolidated May 7 in Nashville.
At various times, the Lady 'Katz were either written off, over-looked or just plain ignored during the 2007 softball season, said their coach.
"I'm so tickled, because these girls are so unbelievable and so driven and kind," said Lady Katz Head Coach Mike Watson. "You know, three weeks ago we were under .500 and now we've completely turned it around. We had lost to a team we shouldn't have (three weeks ago) and I told them, 'Hey, everybody's counting us out right now. They're saying we're through.' But I said, 'I know everyone on this team has a purpose this year and for every setback there's a comeback and we're going to have a big comeback. We're right in the middle of a hurricane, but in the eye, it's always peaceful ... We're going to make an awesome run, so get on the train.' And they did that."
Knotted at 1-all after seven innings of play, Melbourne opened the top of the eighth with tiebreaker rules in effect, placing Emily Carroll at second base with Amanda Treat in the batter's box. Treat did her job by laying down a sacrifice bunt that moved Carroll to third.
Next up, Laura Basquez dropped down a bunt that danced just fair, between home plate and third base, allowing her to reach first safely. The bunt parade continued for Melbourne as Megan Whitehurst pulled the same trick to load the bases with one out.
Abby Cooper then hit into a fielder's choice that plated Carroll to get Melbourne on the board in the eighth. Basquez tried to take third on the play. A groundout ended the top half of the eighth with Melbourne up 2-1.
Needing a run in the bottom of the eighth to extend the game, ICC started by following the same script as Melbourne. Haley Crotts put down a sacrifice bunt to move the tying run from second to third. After a strikeout for the second out, Melbourne issued an intentional walk to Sarah Taylor. Taylor never stopped when she reached first, heading straight to second to give the Lady Cougars two on.
Then the Lady Bearkatz defense got the big play it needed -- a Leathyr Spangler groundout to second -- ending the game.
Save for a late rally, it might have been the Lady Cougars (24-5) who were headed to Fayetteville for a meeting with Greers Ferry.
Down 1-0 after six innings, the Lady Bearkatz managed to find a way to score the game-tying run, leading off the frame with a base-on-balls from Tori Rush. Bailey Watson followed with a hit and then Tass Gillihan moved Abbie Miller, pinch-running for Rush, to third. Miller came home one batter later, thanks to a fielder's choice from Olivia Morris.
Morris, also the starting pitcher for Melbourne, retired ICC 1-2-3, all on infield groundouts in the home half of the seventh, to send the game to extra innings.
"Her performance was unbelievable," Watson said. "I know people laugh at us because she's not the big fireball pitcher everybody's looking for. But Greg Maddox and Tom Glavine have made $50 million dollars and pitched for 20 years hitting spots and changing speeds.
"I told Liv, 'There's more than one way to skin a cat and we're going to ride you to the very end,'" Watson added.
Morris and Lady Cougar ace Sarah Taylor went toe-to-toe. Each hurler facing the minimum through the first two innings and not allowing a hit. Morris (14-4) gave up five hits for the evening, while walking one and fanning three. Taylor (23-4) also allowed five hits while walking one and striking out six.
Of the 10 hits for the game, only four reached the outfield.
The Lady Cougars (24-5) scored the first run in the bottom of the third, as Haley Crotts recorded the first hit with a single to short left. She took second on a passed ball and then moved to third via a sacrifice bunt by Brittany Shrable. Crotts scored on an error off the bat of Taylor.
The Lady Cougars tried to tack on a run in the bottom of the sixth on a delayed steal of home by Trace Grinnell, but Morris got the ball back to catcher Amanda Treat in time for the last out of the inning.
According to Watson, the up-and-down nature of Melbourne's regular season prepared the Lady Bearkatz for just such a moment against a high-powered opponent like ICC.
"We played all year long to beat teams like this. We played an unbelievable schedule," he said. "We played the Mountain Home Tournament and took on all the district champions in our part of the world just to get ready for this. We played Salem (3A-1 East District and regional champion) just before the regional tournament started to see how we measured up against the really good teams -- the ICC's and Greers Ferry's of the world. We made some adjustments, and that paid off."
Greers Ferry knocked off Melbourne 5-0 May 1 in the championship game of the 1A Region 2 Tournament.
The 1A semifinals were originally slated to take place in Lockesburg but were moved 20 miles down Highway 371 South to Nashville after torrential rain and hail made the playing field in Lockesburg un-playable.