JASPER, Tenn. - While the players wanted to celebrate the win that had extended their season, Marion County softball coach Chris Thomas was more concerned with finding ways to ensure that Monday's would not be the final win of the season.
"Way too many runners left on base today, girls," Thomas said as the players huddled in the outfield following a 5-0 Region 3-A semifinal win over Silverdale Baptist Academy. "We can't do that and expect to get to where we want to be by the end of the week."
Despite stranding at least one runner on base every inning, and a total of 12, the Lady Warriors seemed in control throughout Monday's game and will host District 5 champion Grace Academy in Wednesday's region title game at 6 EDT. The winner of that game will host a state sectional Friday, while the loser must travel.
After leaving the bases loaded in the first, Marion County (33-7) got a run in the second inning on an error. Heather Richards made that slim lead hold up until Kelsey Thomas' sacrifice bunt plated a second run in the fifth.
"I'm always a little nervous when we're struggling to score, and I know I have to shut out the other team," said Richards, who threw a two-hitter. "I always try to pitch like the score is 0-0 regardless, and I really felt like somebody would come through and get us going. It was just a matter of time. Once we finally got one more run, that really took some pressure off me and when we scored a few more, I felt really confident."
The Lady Warriors scored three insurance runs in the sixth on sacrifice flies by Keli Bruning and Taylor Brown and a single by Kacie McClendon.
While Richards struck out just two and walked only one, Marion made no errors behind her.
"We may have struggled at times at the plate, but Heather was solid again and we backed her up defensively," Thomas said. "We had to find ways to create some offense at times because their pitcher [Katie Henderson] did a real nice job of keeping us off balance.
"We were a little nervous there for a while, but we finally found a way to get it done and move on."
n Grace Academy 12, South Pittsburg 1: At Grace, it took falling behind for Grace's offense to awaken, and once it did, it never stopped. The Lady Golden Eagles scored all of their runs without making an out in the fifth and final inning in the other Region 3-A semifinal.
South Pittsburg (13-10) scored in the top of the fifth when Nokia Collier's two-out single brought in Megan Downs, who almost homered doubling off the left-field fence. Because her team had yet to solve pitcher Carmen Wooden, Grace coach Tina Walker admitted to some tension through that time.
"When they scored, it finally hit them," Walker said of her players. "I told them, 'We've got to play ball.' She threw a lot of off-speed pitches and it threw us off for a couple of innings. We had to adjust, and I think we adjusted."
The Lady Golden Eagles' rally started with Maddy Horton's infield single and ended with winning pitcher Lacye Walker's walk-off three-run homer. Among the highlights for Grace (35-7-1) in between were Jessie Parker's two-RBI single and run-scoring hits by Reagan Schrader and Sierra Nunley.
"We played great defense and kept them off balance," South Pittsburg coach Leigh Lawrence said. "We felt like they did have a lot of pressure on them. But there's a lot of explosiveness on their team. When you hit as well as they do, it can be hard to stop."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.