East Hamilton came into its District 6-AA high school softball game at Central with an overall losing record. The Lady Hurricanes have played a rugged schedule and were without Kelsey Payne, an all-state selection in 2012, for a while, but they still had to wonder if they had been playing to their capabilities.
Tuesday's 5-3 eight-inning victory over the Lady Purple Pounders likely made up for any previous unpleasant experiences.
East Hamilton (12-12-2, 4-0) now has sole possession of first place in the district. The Lady 'Canes have district games remaining against Hixson and Tyner and can clinch the top seeding for the district tournament with one more win.
"I've been preaching to the girls how important the district games are," East Hamilton coach Cara Stiles said. "Those are the games that position you for the district tournament. That gives you a better chance to move on. Our overall record is not what sets us up to go to the state tournament."
Payne was one of three East Hamilton players with three hits Tuesday, her third being the most damaging. Shaliyah Geathers opened the eighth with a single, and an error was tacked on to Tori Barnes' infield single.
With first base open, the Lady Pounders challenged Payne and she delivered a two-RBI single between shortstop and third base. Central coach LeeAnne Shurette said she was skeptical about putting another runner aboard with a walk and added, "To me, she just hit it to third base."
Central (20-9, 3-1) led 3-1 going to the seventh, but RBI singles by Rachel Gamble with one out and by Alyssa Strickler with two outs tied it. They were the others with three hits for the Lady 'Canes.
"It was a popup," Shurette said of Strickler's hit in the seventh. "I won't take anything away from East Hamilton. They came out and made plays and hit the ball. We didn't make adjustments at the plate like they did. We didn't do what we needed to do.
"To me, we were winning the game and we just didn't finish. We needed that third out and didn't get it."
Strickler's second-inning hit drove in Amber Phillips, who had doubled.
Alexis Grampp tied it for the Lady Pounders with a homer to right-center in the fourth.
Central's go-ahead runs in the fifth came amid some controversy. Britney Sylvester and Brooke Eller had sandwiched singles around a flyout when a pitch got away from East Hamilton catcher Emma Brooks.
Brooks retrieved the ball and threw to third, where Sylvester was called out. But after the umpires conferred, the call was reversed and both runners scored on separate errors on the next play.
"They said she was blocking the bag and didn't have the ball," Stiles said of her third baseman, Maggie Woods. "I felt she was out, but that's not part of a game I can control."
Gamble was the winning pitcher in relief, allowing three hits, a walk and an unearned run over the last four innings with two strikeouts.
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 email@example.com.