EASTLAND — In the blink of an eye, the No. 9 Early Lady Horns’ season ended.
A pair of contested calls went against the Lady Horns in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Hawley Lady Cats rallied for a 3-2 extra-inning victory to sweep the Region I-2A softball quarterfinals series Saturday afternoon.
A 3-1 winner in Game 1 Friday, Hawley (24-8) eliminated the Lady Horns (25-7) from the playoffs for the third time in four years and advanced to next weekend’s Region I-2A semifinals.
The deciding play occurred with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the ninth. Ally Cobb dribbled a slow roller down the first base line that Early first baseman Shandi Winstead fielded cleanly halfway to the bag and fired to catcher Angela Sanderson. Lashae Keith, breaking from third base on contact, was ruled to have touched home plate before the throw arrived, thus ending the contest.
Early head coach Bryan Waller protested the call, but the decision stood and the game ended.
Waller also argued the previous play when Hawley’s Pee Wee Burton grounded back to Janna Allen on the rubber. Allen wheeled and fired to third base in attempt to retire Keith — the lead runner on the play. That throw also was ruled tardy, though, which allowed the Lady Cats to load the bases.
“It’s always tough when the outcome is in the umpire’s hands,” Waller said. “I felt so strongly about the way our girls were playing. The ending does hurt, but it shouldn’t have come down to that.”
The Lady Cats started the ninth inning with a single to left field by Keith, then Kassi Barbee singled off Allen’s glove as she attempted to back hand a low line drive.
“Hawley made the adjustments,” Waller said. “We’d been throwing outside all day long and they were trying to pull everything and hit ground balls to our shortstop and third baseman.
“They got the hits from their best players. The ones that hurt us last night didn’t hurt us today and the ones we handled pretty good last night came through.”
Heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, all the breaks had gone in Early’s favor. The Lady Horns owned a 2-0 lead, Allen had not surrendered a hit and it appeared the series would be pushed to a third game.
Keith collected the first base hit off Allen — who tossed her second straight four-hitter and struck out seven — singling to left field to start the seventh. Barbee then followed with a bunt and beat the throw to first base. Burton was then plunked by an Allen offering to load the bases with no outs.
Cobb grounded out to second baseman Bailey Harris, but Keith scored on the play to cut Early’s lead in half at 2-1. Toni Harris followed with a grounder back to Allen, who looked Barbee back to third base, then fired to first for the second out. On the throw to first, Barbee sprinted to the plate and tied the game at 2-all. Allen then induced a ground out from Becca Barbee to force extra innings.
“We had a chance to win it at the end (of the seventh) and we didn’t get the one runner out at third base like we should have,” Waller said. “That inning they got the bases loaded and we got one runner out and they scored a run. Then the next batter hits it to our pitcher and she looks the runner back to third when she probably should have got her in a rundown. If we make that play, the next batter up hits a grounder to the pitcher and that’s the ball game.”
The Lady Horns, who managed just one hit off Burton Friday, had at least one base runner in six of the nine innings Saturday, but a half dozen runners were left stranded. Sanderson and shortstop Tylene Middleton led the Lady Horns’ nine-hit charge with two hits each, and Early took a 1-0 lead following Middleton’s blast in the fourth inning that almost left the yard.
Middleton led off the fourth with a triple that rattled off the top of the left field wall. Winstead followed with a grounder to Becca Barbee at third. Barbee booted the ball, which gave Middleton the opportunity to race home with the first run.
Early added an insurance run in the top of seventh. Harris singled off Burton’s glove with one out in the inning, then advanced to second base on a passed ball and third base on an errant throw down to second. With two outs, Sanderson’s infield blooper between the pitcher’s rubber, first base and second base fell safely to the dirt as no Lady Cat made a play on the ball. Harris scored easily on the play.
The Lady Horns’ best opportunity to score actually resulted in no runs, and the inability to tally at least one in the top of the sixth inning proved costly in the end.
Early received a sixth-inning lead off single from left fielder Sarah Russell into shallow left field. Pinch-hitter Callie Ellis followed and laid down a bunt, and the throw to second trying to retire Russell was late.
With two on and no outs, Middleton grounded into a fielder’s choice as Russell was retired at third base. Winstead then smoked a line drive to left field, and Ellis was doubled off at second base to end the threat.
“That was frustrating because we hit the ball hard, but we made some mistakes on the base paths,” Waller said. “When you get to this point in the playoffs, you can’t make those mistakes. You have to play as close to perfect as you can.”
Though the Lady Horns’ season ended sooner than they hoped, there is plenty of reason to believe Early will make an 11th straight playoff appearance next year. Early loses just four seniors, while seven starting position players return from a District 6-2A championship squad that won in the postseason for the first time since 2003.
“We’re happy with a district championship, but that wasn’t our overall goal. We want to win state,” Waller said. “We’ve gotten better each year as a group. We were third place, second place and district champions in the three years I’ve been here. We’re just going to have to get over our curse of playing Hawley.
“We’ve got a bunch of girls that will play in the summer and we have good talent in the lower classes coming up. If we can get two or three girls in each class that play throughout the summer, we should be pretty good for the long run.”