And in a nine-inning thriller that saw both fan bases sweating it out the deeper it got despite picturesque fall weather for the well-played affair, it ultimately came down misexecution on a sacrifice bunt attempt and running through a stop sign at third base — and this was for the victor.
The Bowdon High School softball team prevailed in a 4-3, extra-inning nail-biter over Heard County early Saturday evening to claim the Region 5-AA Tournament crown in a game that had everything you could ask for — great pitching, game-saving defensive plays and a tense aura from start to finish.
Of course, there was also that No. 1 Class AA state playoff seed at stake, to boot.
And in the end, it was Red Devilette senior shortstop Lyric Maze’s hot shot between first and second that plated courtesy-runner Emily Sprewell — who was at second base for the international tie-breaker — marking the difference.
With Maze leading off the ninth, she fouled off a pair of Jordan Watson offerings on bunt attempts, falling in an 0-2 hole. From there, Maze battled in the box, fouling off several more pitches and working in a couple of balls before delivering the low liner to the right side of the field for the game-winner.
“We tried to stop [Sprewell], but she wasn’t slowing down. Sometimes they do something that you don’t want them to do and it ends up being good. And that’s the way it was for us. But, yes, Lyric did a heck of a job with her at-bat. We told them, ‘If everybody will do what they’re supposed to do, we’ll win the ball game.’ We had the opportunity for Lyric to get the bunt down, she didn’t get the bunt down. And I told her, ‘If you don’t get the bunt down, you’ve got to get the base hit’ — and that’s what she did,” noted Bowdon coach Ralph Sanders.
Heard County’s second baseman actually made a great play on the liner, diving for it and having it trickle off the tip of her glove to stop it in the infield, which first appeared to keep the Red Devilette runner at third. But with Sprewell going full-steam ahead, she was able to beat the throw to the plate for the dramatic, walk-off win.
Heard County coach Matt Hornsby said the fact that his defense did just what it should have on the play made the loss sting even more.
“An infielder laying out doing her job to keep the ball in the infield and it hits off the end of her glove and dribbles away,” Hornsby said. “You can’t get onto a girl for laying out and having bad luck right there. She did exactly what we ask — went all-out — and it just bounced Bowdon’s way.”
With the win, the Red Devilettes (20-9) earn the No. 1 seed from Region 5 and will play host to Washington-Wilkes (13-13), the No. 4 seed from Region 8, in a best-of-three series that begins with a Wednesday doubleheader. Heard County (25-5) will be the No. 2 seed and host No. 3 Social Circle (19-13-1) in the opening round.
But back to a drama-filled Saturday.
Bowdon, which beat Manchester, 15-0, in the semifinals, jumped out to the early lead in the championship game behind a two-run blast over the left-field fence from Madison Dye to go up 2-0 in the bottom of the first.
Red Devilette senior ace Trinity Strickland yielded just one base knock through the first three innings against the hard-hitting Lady Braves — who belted four home runs in their 11-2 semifinal win over Bremen earlier in the day. But the Heard County bats wouldn’t be held silent all game, as they came through with a pair of runs in the fourth to knot the game up at 2-all on an RBI groundout by Tiffany Smith and an RBI double from Alyssa Bishop.
From there, the nerves got tighter as the game grew longer.
Bowdon hit into inning-ending double plays in the fifth and sixth and stranded a runner at third in the seventh, while the Lady Braves left the go-ahead run at third in the fifth, second in the sixth and stranded runners at second and third in the seventh.
With Strickland, one of the top pitchers in the state, going up against Watson — Heard County’s freshman phenom — it made every scoring opportunity that much more critical.
Hornsby said his team squandered too many of them early in the game.
“It comes back to get you. I know of twice — if not three times — we didn’t get a bunt down. And you’ve got to execute on things like that. They don’t give you extra runs,” Hornsby said.
Heard County scored in the top of the eighth after courtesy-runner Ashlyn Summerlin started at second base, went to third on a passed ball and came home on a sacrifice fly from Anna Shelnutt.
The Red Devilettes were down to their final out in the bottom of the frame, with Sydney Boddie on third base and Ember Wood at the plate. The Bowdon second baseman kept her team alive, though, roping an RBI single down the right-field line to tie the game back up at 3-3.
In the top of the ninth, Heard County got runners at second and third with two outs, but Strickland made a leaping, over-the-shoulder snag on a bloop between the circle and second base to save a run from scoring.
That set up Maze and Sprewell’s ninth-inning magic in the first at-bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Strickland worked all nine innings to earn the win, yielding three runs — two earned — on seven hits with an intentional walk, hit batsman and six strikeouts.
Watson, who relieved Smith with no outs in the second inning, tossed seven frames, allowing two runs on five hits with no walks and four punchouts.
Hornsby said the young right-hander is going to be something special by the time she graduates.
“She keeps us in every game she pitches right now as a freshman. It’s as simple as that,” Hornsby said. “To swing it against a pitcher like [Strickland], I’ll take that all day long. All day long. There’s not many girls like Strickland in the state.”
Offensively, Katlyn Buchanan was 2-for-3 at the plate for Bowdon, while Wood (2-for-4, RBI) also had a multiple-hit effort. Heard County was led by Shelnutt (2-for-3, 2 2B, sac fly, run, RBI) and Cali Harrod (2-for-3 IBB, SB).
And with both teams leaving it all on the diamond Saturday, they’ll certainly have a chance to make some noise in the postseason and represent Region 5 well in the coming weeks.
“Just two great offensive and defensive teams. We were trying to figure out who to pitch around, who to pitch to and how we’re going to pitch everybody — and they’re doing the same thing with us,” Sanders said. “We’d get strokes out here in the outfield and they’d catch them. They’d stroke it and we’d catch it. It was just a great softball game. If you didn’t see anything but the last game, you got your money’s worth. That’s for sure.”
In other Region 5-AA Tournament action from Saturday:
Bremen 11, Manchester 3: In a battle of Lady Blue Devils, it was Bremen that earned the No. 3 state playoff seed in the consolation game.
Still, that wasn’t the one Bremen coach Amy Pointer wanted to be playing in at the start of the day after suffering an 11-2 semifinal setback to Heard County in the opener, yielding four home runs to the Lady Braves.
“It did not go as we planned. We’ve worked on hitting the ball all week long, hitting our spots on the mound and neither one went our way,” Pointer said. “It was a bad day for it not to go our way.”
In the third-place game, Bremen (20-6) put a 4-spot on the board in the first inning before Manchester answered with three runs in the third. Bremen was able to put the game away with three runs in the third and four more in the fourth.
Offensively, Caitlin Wilder (2-for-2, 4 RBI), Kayleigh Medlin (2-for-2, HBP, RBI, 3 runs), Chelsey Stillwell (2-for-3, HR) and Taylor Phillips (2-for-3, SB, run) all had two-hit efforts. Stillwell got the win in the circle.
The Lady Blue Devils will hit the road on Wednesday to face second-seeded Union County (18-11) in the opening round of the state playoffs.
Pointer said her ball club has the ability to make a postseason run, as well, but added that it’s got to play better than it did Saturday.
“Well, last year we had to do it and we had to travel quite a ways to get there. It was a wild week. It was crazy. But we did well. So it depends on whatever team shows up. If Saturday’s team shows up, I don’t know,” Pointer said. “I have all the confidence in the world in them. But they’ve got to have it, too.”