By Mark Clark
Central coach Mitchell Holt knew it was possible – and it happened.
Any team in the three-team Region 4 Tournament could win the title. That is how Holt saw things. Last week, the team that did not win a region game during the regular season – Smiths Station High – won the title by beating the other two region opponents to earn a spot in the postseason playoffs. The team that swept its way through the regular season – Auburn High – lost a pair of games in the tournament and was eliminated from postseason play. The team that came in second in the region with a 2-2 record – Central – faced a win or die situation in the tournament after losing its first round game to Smiths Station and came through with a timely victory that sends them to the South Central Regional this Friday morning.
Central beat Auburn 8-4 in an elimination game last week to win the second seed from the region for the regional tournament in Troy. Central will face Prattville High in a 10 a.m. EDT game at the Troy Sports Complex. Smiths Station will play at the same time against Enterprise High. Prattville is the top seed from Region 3 and Enterprise is the No. 2 seed.
“It was a great week for our program. This year we have had many peaks and valleys and to just find a way to advance to the regional is special. As I said last week, our area is very competitive and any of the three teams could advance. The number three seed, Smiths Station, won the area tournament and the number one seed, Auburn, didn’t advance. I think that is a credit to how tough our area was this season,” Holt said.
Smiths Station defeated Central in the first game of the tournament 6-5. The Panthers then defeated Auburn 14-3 to earn a spot in the postseason. That left it up to Central and Auburn to determine the second qualifier for the regional and which would meet Smiths Station in the area tournament’s championship round.
“In the first game, against Smiths Station, we gave up too many runs in the first three innings. Breanna Leininger came in and pitched her best game for the season. She threw four scoreless innings to keep us in the game. We had chances to tie it up, but tip your hat to Smiths Station and especially to Bre Cameron for not allowing us to do so. Bre Cameron pitched two great games to start the tournament,” Holt said.
The elimination game with Auburn was one of Central’s best of the season. The team went in with a strategy it refused to change and it was worth the effort. Down 3-0 heading into the bottom of the fifth inning, the Lady Red Devils began a comeback effort. Central scored two runs in the fifth and then six more in the sixth to overcome a 4-2 disadvantage at the time to win 8-4.
“In the game with Auburn, we had an approach and game plan that we stuck with and played out almost like we thought it would go. Auburn pitcher Hannah Pitts is one of the very best pitchers in the state and we knew if we couldn’t get to her early we would need to keep the game close so that we could try to get to her late. That is exactly what we did. Our seventh, eighth and ninth hitters jump started the comeback. It was one of those games the girls will remember for a long time. It was rewarding to watch our players rally against a team and pitcher that had our number in the two regular season games we played,” Holt said.
“Jelly Diaz doubled, Briana Murray singled and then advanced to second on a throw on the play and then Tatyana Harris came through with the biggest hit of her career at Central to tie it up. After that, the top of the lineup rolled on and we were up four runs heading into the seventh inning. Gracie Deaton was great inside the circle for us. She has found herself again after some late season troubles and pitched a great game. I am very proud and it is very appropriate that two seniors led the way in that game. They work extremely hard and it was a perfect day for them.”
After taking the victory over Auburn, the Lady Red Devils had to play Smiths Station in the championship of the tournament. Central needed a pair of wins to take the title while Smiths Station needed only one victory. Smiths Station got the victory 12-2 to win the title.
“Tip your hat to them. In Game 1 of the championship, Smiths Station played well and continued to hit the ball well,” Holt said.
But that victory over Auburn sends Central to the South Central Regional in Troy and that is what the Lady Red Devils were after.
“I feel like the regional tournament will be a lot like the area. Any of the four teams there will have a shot at advancing to Lagoon Park for the state tournament. We have played all the teams in the regional this season. We are 0-1 against Prattville, 2-1 against Enterprise and 2-2 against Smiths Station. All of our games in the regional will be played on Friday. Teams could play as many as three games. We will prepare to play all three of those teams this week with the main focus being on what we do. In order to advance, we will have to play our best. We will need all of our players ready to contribute. We also need our fans to bring their support and energy to Troy,” Holt said.
In the first game of the area tournament against Smiths Station, Briana Murray took the pitching loss. Shelby Newsome was 2-for-2 with a home run and five RBI. Deaton was 1-for-3 while Kristen White was 1-for-4.
Deaton went all seven innings against Auburn inside the circle. She allowed six hits, four runs, three earned runs, struck out one and walked one. White was 3-for-4, Newsome was 2-for-2 and Kyleigh McHargue, Diaz and Harris were each 1-for-3.
The game was scoreless through three innings. In the fourth inning, Auburn scored twice to lead 2-0. The Lady Tigers upped their advantage to 3-0 in the top of the fifth. In the bottom of the fifth, Central scored two runs. With one out, White singled and stole second. Newsome singled to score White. Newsome scored on a double by McHargue. Central trailed 3-2.
After Auburn upped its lead to 4-2 in the top of the sixth, Central rallied for six runs. Diaz led off the inning with a double. Murray followed with a single. Both runners scored when Harris hit a ball over the third baseman’s head that dropped short of the leftfielder. White singled and moved Harris to third. White stole second. Madison Hurt singled to drive home Harris. White scored on an error on the play and Hurt moved to second base. Newsome’s sacrifice bunt moved Hurt to third. Hurt scored on a wild pitch. Jaleigh Hardin, McHargue and Deaton each reached base on walks. Diaz walked to force home Carleigh Dades, who was running for Hardin. That made the score 8-4.
Auburn went down in order in the top of the seventh and Central had its spot in the postseason with the win.
Central then fell 12-2 in the championship round’s Game 1 with Smiths Station, Leininger was the losing pitcher. Hurt was 2-for-3 and scored both runs for her team. Summer Lawrence and McHargue were each 1-for-2. Newsome was 1-for-3.