It was a remarkable exchange for two players so young.
William Blount senior Hannah Smith swung on the first pitch in the Lady Governor half of the first inning Tuesday afternoon, the leadoff, stand-up double sending an immediate charge through the William Blount dugout.
Fellow senior Erica Tuck collected both Smith and sophomore Natalie Payne, who’d reached on an error, with a double to left three batters later, and the Lady Governors had a quick, two-run lead in a game that would all but decide the district regular season championship.
Tuck’s drive landed equal distance between Maryville left fielder Kati Lann and center fielder Meredith Elmore. The two Lady Rebel sophomores both appeared to pull up on the play, much like a tennis doubles pairing on a ball hit down the middle. Before the next batter, they fixed that.
“Next time, just call me off,” Lann said. “And use the screeching voice.”
“That’s one of the things we’ve talked about,” first-year Maryville coach David Allen said. “We’re a family. If anything happens, we talk about it and move on.”
Six innings later, Lann settled under a fly ball in left to record the game’s last out, and a team with one senior, eight sophomores, five freshmen and a rookie head coach had clinched the No. 1 seed in next week’s District 4AAA tournament at William Blount with a 4-3 win.
Sophomore catcher Haley Hilliard’s ground-rule double in the Maryville sixth accounted for the game’s winning hit, scoring junior Bry Blanco from second.
“I got a down-the-middle pitch,” Hilliard said. “It was 2-0, a hitter’s count.”
The Lady Rebels (26-5, 13-0 4AAA) halved the Lady Governors’ first-inning lead with a run in the Maryville second, Kalie Pritchett singling her way aboard and scoring on a matching base hit from junior Jessica Connatser. Hilliard, double, and freshman Taylor Hodge, single, got two more across an inning later.
William Blount evened things in its half of the third when senior Cameron Campbell was hit by a pitch, the Governor catcher coming around to score on a Chelsea Lyons two-out drive to right.
Tuck, Smith, Campbell and Lyons had powered William Blount to the regular season crown only a year ago. A win Tuesday and the Lady Governors would have entered this weekend’s final games again tied at the top.
“It was a big night, senior night,” Payne said, “and we played with a lot of heart. We hadn’t done that in a while. When we come to play, we can play with anybody.”
Tuesday’s result was a far cry from the 8-0 blanking the Lady Rebels visited upon their rivals earlier this season. Maryville right-hander Allison Barbee had been dominant in that meeting.
“Last time I thought we got really down on ourselves,” Tuck said. “This time, we stayed up.”
This time, you knew the Lady Governors would come to play, Blanco said.
“We were here on their field, and it was senior night,” she said. “We knew they wouldn’t be the same team.”
After the Lady Governors’ big first inning, Barbee limited William Blount to a pair of singles the rest of the way, collecting the district-clinching win with only two strikeouts on the afternoon. The Lady Rebels hit the ball well off Tuck much of the day, but the Tennessee Tech signee pitched her way out of it on many occasions, excepting the Maryville second where the run crossed unearned.
“I just told (the Lady Rebel defense), ‘My bad,’ and they picked me up,” Barbee said.
The way Lann and Elmore handled the miscommunication on Tuck’s blast, with no prompting from Allen, says a lot about this Lady Rebel team, Blanco said, its youthful makeup withstanding.
“They know if they make a mistake, they can talk to each other and it won’t happen again,” she said.
In looking for reasons how so young a team could be where it is with postseason just around the corner, that’s as good a place as any to start, Barbee said. The chemistry they’ve displayed all season made them expect to be where they are, she said.
“It doesn’t surprise because I knew we could do it,” Barbee said. “We walk out on the field and we’re like one big family.”
The Lady Rebels now find themselves in the same situation the Lady Governors confronted a year ago. After its regular season run, William Blount suffered through a disappointing postseason that saw the Lady Governors fail to advance to the region tournament. The top of the hill in District 4AAA softball is no place to rest easy.
“We really had more fight today,” Smith said. “I think senior day was a factor. We were at home. It’s good to know we still have another week and then the district tournament, so it’s not over yet.”
Allen said he cautioned the Lady Rebels to take the same approach at practice on Monday.
“I asked them, ‘So you think we’re done?’” he said. “‘Don’t settle. We’ve done some good things, but this is just a start.’”
The Alcoa and Maryville softball teams will tune up for postseason with a Pink Out Game next Wednesday at Alcoa to help raise money and awareness in the fight against breast cancer. First pitch is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.