By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
A dream softball season for the third-ranked Italy Lady Gladiators came to a screeching halt Saturday afternoon in West.
Stuck in a peculiar jam following a lead-off triple, a double-pumped throw to home after a nifty stop resulted in a walk-off 1-0 win for the No. 6 Crawford Lady Pirates in the 2A Region II championship.
Macey Cooper’s efforts to get a glove on the hotshot between her bag at third and Keri Scott at shortstop were commendable, as many thought the groundball was destined for the outfield turf. One of those who believed as much was Kylie Ray, who led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a triple to straightaway right field.
As Cooper collected the ball and turned to fire to first, she caught a glimpse of Ray stranded in no-man’s land. The runner ultimately broke for the plate and slid in safely just as the ball bounced off the turf and Cadence Hopgood’s mitt for the series-winning run in the best-of-three championship.
Italy head coach Tina Richards fought back the tears following the game as she talked about the final play and season. Richards explained the team worked on a very similar situation during practice on Friday, noting “that’s just the way softball goes sometimes.”
“We learned a lot about mental toughness today because they are all young,” said Richards of her squad that is set to return every player in 2022 after a 37-4 season and first-ever regional championship berth. “The mental side of softball is probably the hardest to teach. And they are probably in tears now, but when I was talking to them…they are pretty tough girls.
“They’ll bounce back, and I have no worries about that whatsoever. But mistakes are what lose ball games, and we know that. We try to practice and put them in every situation possible. […] We have to get back to work this summer. A lot of these girls play select ball, so they are about to take off running again.”
Italy previously won game one on Wednesday, 3-1, in a tilt that saw ace Emily Janek carry a no-hitter into the final strike.
Janek was nails inside the circle throughout the series — and the season, for that matter. The junior struck out 28 batters to just two walks over the series. She allowed four earned runs, finishing the season with an astounding 0.65 ERA with 404 strikeouts to 27 walks over 183.0IP.
The Lady Gladiators also fell on Thursday, 6-3. That game featured a bit too much and uncharacteristically sloppy defense for Italy to overcome.
“All that we could tell them is that we are proud,” Richards said. “We were able to fight for seven innings and for three games. Our luck wasn’t here today, and that is OK. But I believe, wholeheartedly, that we have grown as a team and a family. And, next year, we will be back. Crawford needs to be ready because we will be back.”
Crawford (31-6) is a perennial state power that has advanced to the state tournament four times over the past two decades, with a half dozen other seasons ending in the regional championship. The Lady Pirates will face (38-0) Pineland West Sabine at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the 2A state semifinal in Austin. The winner will face either (40-1) Weimar or (30-5) Stamford for the 2A title at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
All state semifinal and final games will be played at Red and Charline McCombs Field at the University of Texas.
As Richards began to join the rest of the Lady Gladiators and coaching staff on the bus to head home, she took a moment to soak in the several hundred Old Gold clad fans still in attendance. The game was, after all, standing room only with fans wrapping around the outfield fence.
“Gosh, I can’t even tell you how special this run and support have been,” Richards said. “[Thursday] night, we didn’t even have room for everyone. The town of Italy just loves, loves, loves softball. There are so many of the girls’ families that just go out of their way to make sure the girls are fed or have water or Gatorade. They take care of those things, so we [as coaches] don’t have to worry about it.”
Richards pointed to the Wednesday game as case-and-point. She explained that a group of parents went to the school to ensure the team had everything they needed nutritionally and otherwise while the coaches manned their classrooms.
“The support…it’s amazing,” Richards added. “I love Italy and I’ve grown up here. It’s in our blood and in our souls, and we don’t know anything else other than being an Italy Gladiator.”
All photos by Fred Phipps/KBEC Sports
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith