Mark Dowlen put the Heritage softball team up against the toughest
schedule in school history this season. The results have
been telling for the Lady Mountaineer coach and his players, in more ways than one.
Heritage compiled a sterling 39-8 record in returning to the state
tournament for the first time in 15 seasons a year ago. Facing many of
the states elite teams in early season tournament play this
spring, the Lady Mountaineers arrived at a critical, two-game set with
district frontrunners Maryville and Farragut on Monday and Tuesday,
respectively, at 13-10.
Something had to change. Something did.
Junior Kara Murr tied things with a solo home run in the fourth,
then added a run-scoring single in the sixth, as Heritage
avenged a loss to Maryville a week earlier, 2-1, on Monday. Senior Shelley Fagg, the teams ace in the pitching circle, connected on a two-run homer the following afternoon, and the Lady Mountaineers dealt the Lady Admirals their first district loss, 2-0.
The win was Dowlens 100th as Heritage coach.
Just like that, the Lady Mountaineers (15-10) are right back in it, perched alongside Farragut atop the district standings with matching 6-1 records. The Lady Rebels are one back at 5-2 in league play.
Fagg, who also picked up Mondays win over Maryville, fired eight strikeouts by the Lady Admirals in a three-hit shutout. The hard-throwing right-hander is at her best when Heritage needs her most, Dowlen said.
"She thrives on that," he said, "and, knowing it was for first place in the district half way through, (Tuesday) was big for us and big for her."
A day earlier, it was Murr coming to the rescue for Heritage, her soaring home run to left pulling the Lady Mountaineers even with the Lady Rebels at 1-all after four.
"Everybody got up after that," Murr said. "We knew we could make it happen."
Murrs smash through the left side scored Katie Miller two innings later, with Fagg cleaning up with a perfect seventh to end it.
The Lady Mountaineers never got rattled when this season didnt open at the same pace as last, Dowlen said.
"We were trying to do too much," he said, "instead of playing the game of softball. We were trying to be that team last year. We looked back (at this seasons start) and talked about each game and how the little things in each game could have made a difference."
A series of moves defensively have proven key, he said. Sophomore Nikki Malcomb moved from shortstop to left, enabling sophomore Tiffany Ervin to move from left to behind the plate and become a solid battery mate for Fagg. Miller then moved from third to short, enabling Dowlen to get sophomore Miranda Rayburn on the field.
"Shes doing a spectacular job at third," he said. "Plus, that gets her bat in the lineup."
This season may have started slow, but, "Those tournaments made us a better team," Dowlen said.
Its beginning to show.