And even though the Lady Lion coach saw his squad’s amazing run come to a close in a 4-2 setback to Ringgold in the Class AAA state playoffs at the Columbus Softball Complex on Saturday, LeBlanc doesn’t hesitate to consider the third-place finish a sure-fire success, given the abundance of youth and questions marks entering the year.
“First, I’ve just got to say the tremendous leadership. When you have a young team, it was just tremendous leadership,” LeBlanc said. “Great chemistry. I’m as proud as I can be. We’re all disappointed right now. But the more time that you have to kind of savor it as you go forward, this is a very, very special group of young ladies. I’m as proud as I can be.”
The two-run setback ended the prep careers of Central seniors Alison Jiles and Shena Chambers, a duo that took different paths to this point, but ultimately both played integral roles in the Lady Lions (30-9) winning the regular season and Region 4-AAA Tournament titles, hitting the 30-win mark for the year and ultimately finishing third in Class AAA.
“I mean, Alison has been a member of the varsity squad for so long and has been depended on to do things. Shena is one of those that had to wait her turn. She had some girls in front of her. But both of them, just some solid leadership that both of them had,” LeBlanc said.
The No. 2 Lady Tigers (32-8) got runs in the bottom of the second and third innings on a pair of RBI groundouts and Brittany Portwood made it a 4-0 contest on a two-run double off the fence later in the third.
Central got on the board in the top of the sixth after Aubrey Bennett singled and Hayley Sims and Cassie Griffin both walked to load the bases with no outs. All the runners moved up a base on a passed ball and another run should have scored on a deep fly to center off the bat of Jiles, but there was some miscommunication and the runners didn’t tag up.
Sims would still score on an RBI fielder’s choice by Jordyn Scott in the next at-bat, but Ringgold was able to keep it a two-run game by recording a pop-out and throwing out a runner trying to steal second base.
In their last chance, the Lady Lions went down 1-2-3 in the seventh.
Ringgold would go on to fall in the championship game later Saturday to top-ranked Buford (32-3), which won its sixth straight state championship and the first since moving up to Class AAA this year.
“Going into this, you probably would have said those two teams were the favorites to be where they are,” LeBlanc said of the state finalists.
The Lady Lion coach said it will be hard to say good-bye to the program’s two seniors, but he added there is plenty of optimism with the core of returnees, coupled with a strong class of ninth-graders coming up next fall.
“You hope so. Still, there’s some big shoes to fill. But you feel real good about our young program and you feel real good about the ones that are already there. But there’s so many intangibles. I’m telling you, chemistry is the key thing. Absolutely. You know, the middle school team won a championship this year and you’ve got a lot of good girls coming up. But just quality young women with integrity and character here [Saturday]. They just really gelled. So hopefully you can get that same thing moving forward,” LeBlanc said.