After a pair of down-to-the-wire regular season games with each side picking up a one-run win, and a tightly-contested postseason game on Wednesday, it seemed almost inevitable that the region tournament championship would come down to a final clash between the Calhoun Lady Jackets and Sonoraville Lady Phoenix, the two most complete teams in Region 6-AAA.
At the conclusion of a wild and winding seven innings of what proved to be the most exhilarating contest between the two squads yet, it was the Lady Jackets (22-7) who stood victorious at 5-4 after the dust had settled, securing its seventh consecutive Region 6-AAA title and a No.1 seed in the AAA state playoffs.
It was additionally fitting that the fourth meeting of these two teams would come down to a decisive and dramatic seventh and final inning. Down 4-3 heading approaching the final frame, Calhoun head coach Diane Smith turned to pinch hitter Malysha Winston, who delivered with a single to ignite the comeback effort. After an Espee Reyes sacrifice, and a useful Carlie Henderson ground out to advance pinch-runner Mattie Jane Mashburn, the pressure was on for Erin Barnes.
Barnes responded in a big way, pushing through a clutch, two-out single into right field to bring in Mashburn and knot the score.
Calhoun wasn’t content with a tie. After a pair of walks to Lyndi Rae Davis and Molly Walker loaded the bases, Audrey Wilbanks sealed the win and the championship by slicing a RBI-single into right field to knock in Barnes.
“It is just an awesome feeling, and I have never been more proud of these girls as I am right now,” Smith said. “Coming into the bottom of the seventh down one is a scary situation, but I have faith in this group and they came through for us when it mattered most.”
“I’m especially proud of the way that Erin and Audrey stepped up for us. Audrey was struggling a little bit at the plate before that at-bat, but she told me before she stepped in there in the seventh that she’s got this, and she delivered in the biggest moment of the season. I couldn’t be more happy with the way that they stepped up for us.”
The Lady Jackets wouldn’t have been in a position to rally if it wasn’t for an impactful contribution from its clean-up hitter Davis, who smashed a solo homerun to even the score at 3-3 back in the third inning.
“Lyndi Rae has been a problem for pitchers all season,” Smith said. “She’s a beast, and we wouldn’t be where we were in this game or in this season without her in the middle of the lineup.”
Also chipping in offensively for Calhoun was Lona Sims, who rocked a double in the fourth and Walker, who knocked a base hit through a gap in the third.
The Lady Jackets were also positioned to win thanks to another steady performance from Maggie McBrayer. Despite logging 21 innings pitched over three days, McBrayer allowed four runs on seven hits while striking out nine.
“Maggie was a warrior for us this week,” Smith said. “I approached her early in the week and ask her if she’s ready to go, and she assured me she was ready. I’m so impressed with the way that she was able to battle for three straight nights for us.”
The Lady Phoenix turned to freshman Taylor Long in the circle, with Long showing the team a glimpse into a bright future by striking out six and allowing two runs (one earned) on three hits in 3 1-1 innings of work. Sonoraville (22-5) called upon Kristen Davis to close the game, and was impressive in the loss, allowing three runs on four hits while compiling three strikeouts.
Despite coming up just short on the scoreboard, the Lady Phoenix offense was still potent and productive.
Kristen Davis opened up the scoring by smashing a home run in the first inning to give Sonoraville the early edge. The Lady Phoenix also scratched across runs in the fourth, off of a Griffin Holden RBI-double, and the sixth, off of a Emma Garland RBI-single that appeared at the time to ensure a win.
“It was a total team effort today,” Smith said. “Every single player that got in there contributed. We will need that going forward.”
Going forward, the No. 1 seed Lady Jackets will host Fannin County, and the No. 2 seed Lady Phoenix will host North Hall. If Calhoun emerges victorious in that series, it would be their sixth straight trip to the Elite Eight. The Lady Jackets are seeking its fifth state title in six seasons.