Whitwell didn't mean for Kathleen Sledge's tiebreaking, two-run triple in the sixth inning of Tuesday's Region 3-A high school softball semifinal to serve as a wake-up call for host Grace Academy, but that's what happened.
The Lady Golden Eagles answered with five runs in the bottom of the inning and defeated the Lady Tigers 6-3.
Grace Academy (25-7) will host District 5 rival Silverdale Baptist today at 4:30 p.m. in the region championship game. The winner will play at home in a state sectional on Friday; the loser will have to travel.
Grace's Reagan Schrader, who had doubled in the tying run in the bottom of the third inning after Whitwell's Riley Long homered in the top half, got the winning rally started by reaching on a hard-hit error. Bethany Cowart then lined a triple into the right-field corner, just as Sledge had done to make it 3-1. Kaitlyn Eldridge's single through the middle then tied it.
"We were a little flat all game long," Grace coach Tina Walker said. "My seniors are going to carry this team as far as we go. We didn't adjust to their pitching real well the first couple of times at bat."
With the bases loaded and still no one out, the Lady Tigers registered a force at home, but an error on a return throw to first allowed the go-ahead run to score. Lexie Dean's pop-fly double that was almost caught down the left-field line drove in the last two runs.
"This was a heartbreaker," Whitwell coach Grace Pickett said. "We had a two-run lead in the sixth inning, but we knew they had the meat of their order coming up."
Winning pitcher Tory Helton allowed four hits and one walk and had six strikeouts. Dean was 3-for-4 and Maddy Horton was 2-for-3 for Grace, which has earned a spot in a sectional for the sixth consecutive year.
Whitwell ends its season 16-10. The region berth is the first for the Lady Tigers since 2009.
"We're going to have to work on defense and learn how to finish all seven innings," Pickett said. "Hopefully we can build on this and go further next year."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.