MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- It was fitting in a high school softball state final in which defense carried the day that a diving catch clinched Grace Academy's 3-2 Class A win over Decatur County Riverside.
With the tying run on first base Saturday, Riverside leadoff batter Lauren Jones, who was 2-for-3 at that point, hit a pop fly into shallow center that had shortstop Kaitlyn Eldridge drifting back and center fielder Bethany Cowart charging in. After the two stopped tumbling, Eldridge showed the umpire the ball and the Lady Golden Eagles had their first state championship.
"I was going all out on that last play," Cowart said. "All I know is I felt Kaitlyn hit me. Then I heard screaming, so I knew somebody had it."
Tory Helton had given the Lady Golden Eagles the lead with her two-run double with one out in the fifth inning. The junior right-hander shouldered the pitching load all season and also threw all but three innings in a run through the state-tournament losers bracket after Grace (33-8) had lost its first game.
Cowart helped her Saturday by making a sprawling catch off the top of the grass with two on in the third and Grace down 2-1. First baseman Lexie Dean speared a line drive the inning before, and Eldridge shone defensively all week.
Catcher Reagan Schrader, who was 2-for-4 in the title game, had the best view of it all.
"We were very solid," Schrader said. "You can't ask anything else from a state-championship team than solid defense. We knew Tory was going to need the help, after all she had pitched."
The title turned out to be a few years in the making. Lacye Walker, the daughter of Grace coaches Tina and Alan Walker, graduated off last year's team, which was making its second consecutive state-final appearance. But both resulted in second-place finishes -- to Trinity Christian and Riverside.
"I'm proud of them for finally getting it," said Lacye, who this spring helped Chattanooga State's softball team win its first NJCAA Division I national championship. "That's the first time in Grace's history we've gotten first place in anything. I'm just really happy for them."
Cowart, Dean, Eldridge and Schrader are this year's seniors and were playing in the state tournament for the fourth time.
"No matter what was happening, I pretty much had to stay out of it," Tina Walker said. "They were the ones handling it, whatever needed to be said or done. I have had Kaitlyn since the eighth grade and the rest of them since ninth grade. They've made great improvement year after year after year. They wanted it, and they wanted it bad. They were determined this 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.