EARLY — There’s a first time for everything. And since the Early Lady Horns are already making their first appearance in the UIL Class 2A state softball tournament, they figure now’s the perfect opportunity to capture their first state championship, as well.
The Region I-2A champion Lady Horns (33-4) will take their latest step toward achieving that goal at 4:30 p.m. at McCombs Field on the University of Texas at Austin campus, where they face the Region IV-2A champion Hallettsville Lady Brahmas (31-9) in the state semifinals.
With a victory, the Lady Horns will face either Region II-2A champion Brock (31-6) or Region III-2A champion Elysian Fields (31-7) at 11 a.m. Saturday in the state championship game.
“It’s exciting to get there, we’re glad that we’re there and we’re thankful for what we’ve accomplished,” said center fielder Kayla Dickerson. “And we don’t want to say that we’re greedy, but we do want it all.”
Added pitcher Janna Allen, “I’m not looking to get third place, I’m looking to win it all. Once we’re there, we’re there and we’re not going to settle for a loss.”
While capturing the regional championship would be considered a successful season for some programs — especially since Early ended the four-year reign of the Coahoma Bulldogettes — the Lady Horns expect more from themselves in Austin.
“This is a great opportunity for us and if we go and lose then all of our dreams are gone,” said shortstop Tylene Middleton. “It’d be horrible. I’d be angry because we worked so hard all year.”
In order to realize their dream, however, the Lady Horns must first get past a talented Hallettsville squad — which shared the District 26-2A championship with 2008 state champion East Bernard — that is also making its first trip to Austin. That combination could provide plenty of jitters both teams will need to quickly overcome.
“All four teams that are going weren’t there last year, so none of the teams know exactly what it’s like,” Dickerson said. “I think we’ll all be in the same position.
“I know there’s going to be a big crowd there and a lot of people. I’ve been to the stadium there and it’s really nice. There’s a big longhorn painted in center field, so I’m excited about that.”
Dickerson also added that the Lady Horns have a unique approach to avoiding tense situations.
“We have our superstitions and we stay with everything in order and stick with that, but we’re also really a goofy team that doesn’t get real serious,” Dickerson said. “Some coaches don’t like that about us, but that’s who we are, we’re goofy. Coach (Bryan) Waller even gets mad sometimes, but he realizes that’s us and that’s how we stay calm.”
When Early steps between the lines, however, it’s all business. And the Lady Horns understand another stellar effort will be required if they expect to get past Hallettsville and land in the state championship game.
“To me, Hallettsville is almost a mirror image of us,” Waller said. “They have speed throughout their lineup and they like to swing the bat. I enjoy that part about them because they’re not going up there looking for a walk. They’re looking to put the ball in play and use their athleticism.
“They also have three pitchers that can all control the strike zone. They don’t throw anything overpowering, but they do exactly like we do, try and make you hit into bad play.”
Hallettsville’s pitching staff consists of twin sisters Lauren and Lindsey Steffek, along with Cherise Klekar. Prior to the start of postseason play, Klekar had recorded a team-high 63 strikeouts, while the Steffek sisters led the way in victories as Lauren posted eight followed by seven from Lindsey.
As deep as the Lady Brahmas’ rotation is, none of their pitchers are expected to come close to Coahoma’s Heather Newton, who limited Early to 10 hits while recording 40 strikeouts in the Region I-2A championship series.
“There is no comparison,” Waller said. “Heather is far and above better and can throw a lot faster than what Hallettsville is going to bring. That can be good or bad for us. We can go in there knowing it’s not Heather and we have a good chance to hit it or we can be overconfident, which I don’t think we’re going to be.”
Added Dickerson, “We just want to go out there and hit the ball. Key hits are what pulled us through against Coahoma. We know we’re not going to face anybody like Heather Newton, she’s probably the best pitcher in the state in 2A. There’s probably not going to be anybody like her at state, so I think we’re going to be OK.”
The Lady Horns have received contributions from the entire lineup — Dickerson, Middleton, Bailey Harris, Tresta Donahoo, Kish Suniga, Julia Loudermilk, Morgan Birrell, Shandi Winstead and Daniela Castillo — during the postseason.
Birrell and Suniga have each homered twice in seven playoff games, while Winstead also has left the yard. Birrell is tied with Castillo for the team lead with seven postseason RBIs, followed by six from Donahoo, five from Loudermilk, four from Suniga, three from Winstead and one each from Middleton and Harris.
Hallettsville will likely field a stronger defensive unit than Coahoma — which committed four errors in Game 3 of the regional championship series — as shortstop Callie Herrington and third baseman Morgan Teltschik are both headed to the collegiate ranks.
“Their shortstop and third baseman have signed to go play at college, so they’re pretty stout on the left side of the infield,” Waller said. “The shortstop can dive in the hole and gun you out at first; she’s an amazing player. Their outfield is pretty quick, too, so we’re going to have to be on our toes.”
In the circle, Early will again count on Janna Allen, who has collected 32 victories and held Coahoma to four runs, 20 hits and stranded 18 base runners last week. Not a traditional strikeout pitcher, Allen did fan 11 batters while relying on her defense — which committed just two errors in 21 innings — to record the rest of the outs.
“My defense was really amazing against Coahoma last week,” Allen said. “My job isn’t to strike them out, my job is to rely on the defense and not let them hit home runs or walk anybody. I’m supposed to allow the defense to play, and they sure played against Coahoma.”
Hallettsville’s offense is led by Haley Leopold and Timisha North, who were batting .490 and .417, respectively, going into the playoffs. Other clutch hitters during the postseason have been Emilie Jansky, Kellan Werner, Latreece Haynes and Lauren Steffek.
“I’ve heard they have good sticks, they’re going to hit the ball and come out and be aggressive,” Allen said. “They’re also fast on the base paths. We just have to play good defense and I think we can get them out.”
Thursday’s 2 p.m. semifinal features two programs more familiar with Austin in three-time state qualifiers Brock and Elysian Fields. Brock previously advanced to state in 2001 and 2002, while Elysian Fields made trips in 2005 and 2006.
“I’ve seen Brock and they’re a great ball club,” Waller said. “They’re well-coached and have a lot of team speed. They also have a pitcher that can throw it hard and she also has some good movement.
“Elysian Fields, from what I know, they’re a great, athletic team that’s been there before just like Brock. They know what to do when they get there, and I think they’ll have a great ball game.”
Waller admitted the Lady Horns will watch some of the first semifinal game before making their final preparations for Hallettsville.
“We’ll probably throw some batting practice, then watch a little bit of it,” Waller said. “But we want to make sure we get out of the heat and into some place cool.”
At last report, temperatures in Austin were expected to top out at 93 degrees today, and reach 98 degrees on Saturday.