1A STATE?SOFTBALL?FINALS MELBOURNE 2, GREERS?FERRY-WEST?SIDE 7
If it's indeed true that getting there is half the fun, the Melbourne Lady Bearkatz must have had a blast, riding a magic carpet all the way to the 1A State Softball Tournament finals at Lady'Back Yard in Fayetteville.
And though they certainly would have preferred to complete the other half of the deal by leaving the University of Arkansas campus with a state title in tow, the Lady Katz nevertheless still looked like they were thoroughly enjoying their improbable trip to the championship game, holding their heads up high after falling to Greers Ferry-West Side 7-2 May 12.
While it wasn't your typical David vs. Goliath matchup, Melbourne (14-10) knew it would have to have its slingshots fully loaded to knock off the powerful Lady Eagles (33-2).
Of Greers Ferry's two losses this year, one came to the 4A state champions from Dardanelle, with the other coming at the hands of 3A state champion Elkins, giving the Lady Eagles a 22-game winning streak heading into the finals. To boot, the Lady Eagles had just topped Melbourne 12 days earlier, pushing past the Lady Bearkatz 5-0 in the regional championship game May 1. That loss to Greers Ferry was Melbourne's only setback in the past 11 games, heading into the state championship round.
In that game, Greers Ferry crossed the plate three times in the first inning and never looked back. In the 1A finals, it was a different story, as the game was close until the Lady Eagles broke open a one-run contest with four runs in the top of the seventh.
Melbourne starter Olivia Morris held Greers Ferry in check for the first three innings, while Lady Eagle hurler Chris Barnum did likewise. For the game, Morris gave up six hits and four walks, two intentional, while fanning three. Barnum also gave up six hits while striking out two.
Greers Ferry placed two runners on base through three innings, while the Lady Bearkatz had one baserunner during that stretch, allowing Melbourne to set the pace, an important part of the puzzle according to Lady Bearkatz Coach Mike Watson.
"We had to (keep things close early). It happened just like we wanted it to happen," he said. "We knew we couldn't let them jump on us early like they did before (in the regional finals)."
Greers Ferry broke through with a run in the top of the fourth, taking advantage of back-to-back errors on Melbourne to get a pair of runners on base. Barnum slugged a hit to center that drove in Amy Rohrer to give the Lady Eagles a 1-0 lead.
This lead didn't hold up long, as Melbourne sent two runs across the dish in the home half of the fourth.
Meagan Whitehurst led off the frame by crushing a hit over the right fielder's head, good for a standup triple for the Melbourne shortstop.
Next up, Abby Cooper dropped down a nice bunt and reached first safely. She then stole second to give the Lady Katz runners at second and third with no outs.
Greers Ferry got a fielder's choice for the first out of the stanza, but Bailey Watson came through big-time by smacking an infield hit. On the hit, Whitehurst came home from third, sliding under the tag of Lady Eagle catcher Shawna Davis to knot the game at 1-all.
But Melbourne wasn't done.
Tass Gillihan tapped a bunt that headed toward the pitcher's mound and was fielded by Barnum. Gillihan was thrown out at first, but Cooper managed to come home on the fielder's choice, giving Melbourne a 2-1 lead after four.
Greers Ferry regained the lead in the top of the fifth with a big two-out rally.
Katie Horsman ripped a triple to center that scored one run for the Lady Eagles, then she came home thanks to a bloop to short center from Amelia Reed, edging Greers Ferry in front 3-2.
"They (Greers Ferry) just don't have many holes. We played them last time without the Horsman girl, and you can see what she did today," Watson said. "She burned us once. When you've got a 6-1 shortstop, you've got a pretty good player."
It looked as though the Lady Katz would have an answer in the bottom of the frame.
Emily Carroll hit safely and then Amanda Treat bunted her way to first base. A fielder's choice from Laura Basquez moved Carroll to third and Treat to second with just one out in the inning.
But Greers Ferry got out of this jam as Whitehurst slammed a screamer toward Lady Eagle third baseman Brooke Carr. Carr snagged the liner and then doubled up Carroll to end the inning with no damage done for Greers Ferry.
"It was frustrating, but when you're being aggressive on the bases and hit a hard line drive, that's sometimes the by-product of it," Watson said.
Then things came undone for Melbourne in the top of the seventh, as Greers Ferry scored four runs on two hits and a costly error, helping the Lady Eagles to a 7-2 victory and state title.
"We had a couple things that went wrong there; we had some errors that we normally don't have. We've made one error the whole tournament, then we had four today. That just comes from not being here and playing in a big-time atmosphere," said Watson. "Girls that don't ever make mistakes made some today, but hey, that's just part of the ball game."
Greers Ferry catcher Shawna Davis, the player who hit a walkoff, seventh-inning home run in the semi-final round to edge the Lady Eagles past Taylor 5-4, was named Tournament MVP, although Melbourne managed to hold her hitless in the championship game.
"We kind of junked her a little bit, just like we did the (Sarah) Taylor girl from ICC," Watson said. "We overloaded our defense on that (left) side. She's a big stick; a dead-pull hitter, and we did that and I think it kind of bothered her a little."
So regardless the outcome of the state finals, the Lady Bearkatz, a team that less than a month ago was floundering with a sub-.500 record and looked in danger of missing post-season play, managed to pull itself up by its boot straps and make an incredible push to Fayetteville.
"I told the girls (after the game) that I've been on an unbelievable ride with them, and I know they have. We've been walking on air for about two weeks now," said Watson. "I told them I love them and couldn't be any more proud. If we'd won it, we'd be jumping around excited right now, but in my heart, that wouldn't change the way I feel about this team."
And the way things look, the Lady Bearkatz may be primed for a similar charge next year, with no seniors on this year's team.
"I've got nearly everyone coming back. Whitney Wommack, who's been a starter for us, has been out with an ACL injury, she should be back and then we've got Maggie Cooper moving up (from junior high) next year," said Watson. "So things are looking up for Lady Bearkatz softball."