COLUMBUS – There were a lot of reasons the Calhoun Lady Jackets shouldn’t have been the last team standing in Class AAA this season.
They lost too much talent from last year (six seniors all went on to sign college scholarships), they dealt with too many injuries and losses of players for other reasons over the past few months, they had an up and down first half of the season as they searched for an identity and leadership, they relied on too many inexperienced underclassmen and they faced a tough road in the region and state playoffs and Elite Eight. Those are just a few reasons.
But in the end, none of that mattered. Not one bit. The only thing that did was their unbreakable, undeniable, unwavering belief that they would be the team to hoist the Class AAA State Championship Trophy no matter what it took.
The Lady Jackets completed a 4-0 run through the Elite Eight in Columbus on Saturday morning with a 4-2 victory over Cook County in the finals to claim the Class AAA state title, the program’s fourth in the last five years. This one was different, though. Possibly the sweetest of all.
Calhoun (31-8) dealt with all kinds of adversity this season, and veteran head coach Diane Smith said that made winning this title that much more satisfying.
“We’ve been doubted all season,” said Smith. “There were people that said we weren’t talented enough or experienced enough or whatever else, but this group never gave up. They stuck with me, and I’m so proud of each and every one of them. This one right here is very special. After all the adversity we’ve had to deal with this season, to come through it and win the whole thing is incredible. I can’t say enough good things about what this team did the last few days here in Columbus and how hard they worked over the past few months to make it happen. I’m so proud of this team.”
After putting themselves in the driver’s seat for the title with a dramatic, comeback victory over Worth County in extra innings on Friday night, the Lady Jackets wasted no time getting on the board on Saturday in the finals against Cook County. After back-to-back hits to lead off the game in the top of the first from sophomores Carlie Henderson and Erin Barnes, freshman Lyndi Rae Davis stepped to the plate and launched a three-run homer to put her team ahead right off the bat at 3-0.
“That was huge,” said Smith of the first-inning runs. “Davis stepped up and hit that three-run homer and really set the tone for the game. That gave us confidence, and that was all we needed. After that, we did everything we had to do to win. We got good pitching and good defense, and I never doubted that we wouldn’t get the job done. The girls made every play they needed to finish this thing off with a state title.”
Cook County (21-9) responded in the bottom half of the first with two runs of their own coming on an RBI-single from Brannon Allen and then an error to cut their deficit to 3-2. But Calhoun freshman hurler Maggie McBrayer settled in from there and didn’t give up another run while also getting an insurance run from senior teammate Adella Carver on a solo homer in the third to make it 4-2.
McBrayer, who pitched every inning of Calhoun’s four-game run in the Elite Eight, finished going seven innings for the complete game as she allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits while striking out four. The freshman, who has already committed to Georgia Tech, said she was confident pitching on the big stage, but she was quick to deflect praise to her teammates.
“I just took it one pitch at a time,” said McBrayer. “I just trusted my teammates, and they carried me through this. That’s what got us here is depending on each other, and I’m so proud of them. It feels so good to win this title with my teammates. There were a lot of people who doubted us because we were young or whatever other reasons, but we knew we had what it took to win it. And I can’t wait to win a few more over the next few years.”
Adding to the offensive effort to go with Davis’ three-run blast and Carver’s solo shot was Audrey Wilbanks with a double, and Molly Walker and Tori Roper with a hit apiece.
Carver, one of three seniors on the team along with Roper and Maddie Bumgardner, said there isn’t a better way for her to end her high school softball career than with a storybook ending of a state title.
“This means the world to me,” said Carver. “We faced so much adversity this season, and it means so much to win this with my sisters. I wouldn’t want to be out here with anyone else.”
Bumgardner, who has dealt with adversity of her own with health problems throughout the season, echoed Carver’s comments on how special this state-title run was.
“It means everything to me,” said Bumgardner. “Last year we had a lot of talent, but we didn’t have the same kind of determination that we had coming into the Elite Eight this year. Everybody doubted us, and we had a lot of things to fight through this season. That’s what was so special about this state title.
“For me, I knew these were my last games, and no matter how bad I felt, I had to do everything I could for my teammates and coaches. I had to empty the tank and leave everything I had on this field.”
Calhoun added to its recent run at the top by winning their fourth straight title in five years and avenged a state runner-up finish last season. Smith said she has no doubt that this program can keep up the pace with more top-end success over the next several years.
“We’ve still got them coming,” said Smith. “We’re not close to being done. Coach (Tony) Lindsey keeps sending me great players from the middle school program, and I think we’re going to keep on winning. We’re going to lose a few seniors that we will miss a lot, but we’re going to keep things going with the girls we have coming back and more freshmen on the way. Calhoun Softball isn’t going anywhere. We’ll be back again for more.”