At Murfreesboro (All times EDT)
Class AA at McKnight No. 1
East Hamilton vs. Chester County, 5
Class AA at Starplex No. 2
Meigs County vs. Unicoi County, 7
Class A at Starplex No. 4
Whitwell vs. Forrest, 7
Division II-AA at Starplex No. 3
Pope John Paul II vs. GPS, 7
Division II-AA at McKnight No. 3
Baylor vs. St. Benedict, 1
Before the season started, East Hamilton softball coach Cara Stiles wasn't sure how much Maria Walshe would be able to pitch, or how effective she would be if she did. But if those concerns weren't dismissed once she started playing during the regular season, they surely have been since.
There are multiple reasons why the Lady Hurricanes are back in the TSSAA Class AA state tournament for a second consecutive year. Not to be overlooked is Walshe's work in the pitching circle, particularly the last month.
East Hamilton (21-13-2) will open tournament play today against Chester County at the McKnight No. 1 field at 5 p.m. EDT.
Walshe, a left-hander, was dealing with tendinitis in her pitching shoulder when the season started, and she wasn't able to throw the first couple of weeks. She returned to the lineup in time to help the Lady Hurricanes win the District 6 regular-season championship, and she threw a no-hitter in the tournament final.
Walshe also was the winning pitcher in their Region 3 semifinal and final victories. Then on Saturday, when the Lady Hurricanes defeated Bledsoe County 8-2 in a state sectional, her pitching record improved to 15-2.
"She has really skyrocketed this year," said sophomore Emma Brooks, who for a second year is East Hamilton's starting catcher. "She's one of our main players. I don't know what we'd do if she wasn't here. She's stepped it up. If she's hurt or injured, then she's pushed through it."
Feeling healthy is one reason Walshe has been a key contributor this season. Another is that the Lady Hurricanes' coaches are allowing her more often to throw her changeup, a pitch Stiles said Walshe has kept in the strike zone about 80 percent of the time.
"It's a pitch we throw to almost every batter now," Brooks said.
Walshe's prep career started when she was an eighth-grader at the now-closed David Brainerd Christian School. She said from those humble beginnings at a Class A school, she never thought she'd be where she is now.
"In eighth grade I was just so excited to be out there," Walshe said. "I was around all these giant girls. It seemed like the seniors were twice my size. Now I'm the giant senior. I'm so much more confident now."
Walshe has blossomed into a 6-footer, but physically isn't the only way she's developed.
"My stomach wasn't in near as many knots as it was last year," Walshe said after the sectional victory. "I'm not going to say my pitches are better, but I will say I think I'm better at placing it.
"I think I've grown, as far as the mental part."
Stiles said overall her team's mental toughness is better this year compared to last and the team defense is much better. Walshe did not have a strikeout Saturday, so her defense had to handle all 21 outs.
Walshe said it's a relief knowing the Lady 'Canes have such a strong batting lineup and that takes pressure off her. And she's a big part of that lineup with a .407 batting average and six home runs.
"Maria is a vital part of our ballteam, defensively and offensively," Stiles said. "She's had a lot to overcome. She's grown up a lot. Her self-confidence is much better than even last year."
Junior right-hander Rachel Gamble has logged the next-highest amount of innings in the pitcher's circle. But she may be more valuable for East Hamilton defensively, if she can come up with more catches like the diving one she made along the right-field line Saturday that potentially saved two runs from scoring.
If the Lady 'Canes can stay out of the losers bracket in Murfreesboro, which they weren't able to do last year, Walshe may be all they need to carry the pitching load the rest of the way.
"I think if we go out and play ball and play defense like we can and hit when we have runners on, Maria is going to take care of it for us," Brooks said. "I don't want her doing anything until we get there. Keep her in a plastic bubble. Whatever it takes."
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.