EARLY — The No. 9 Early Lady Horns got one monkey off their backs by winning their first playoff game since 2003. Now, the Lady Horns will attempt to get past the team that ended their seasons in 2005 and 2006.
The Lady Horns (25-5) and the Hawley Lady Cats (22-8) open their best-of-three Region I-2A softball quarterfinals series at 7 p.m. at Eastland. Games 2 and 3, if needed, will follow at noon Saturday at the same location.
“The girls were excited to get the win, and they really aren’t too worried about the past,” said Lady Horns head coach Bryan Waller. “They felt getting the bye was helpful and now they’re ready for this weekend.”
Early, the champion of District 6-2A, reached the third round of the playoffs by knocking off Junction, 9-4, last Friday following a first-round bye. Hawley, the runner-up from District 5-2A, has survived a pair of series against Jim Ned — which split two district games with Early — and Sonora.
The fact that Hawley has played six games in the last two weeks compared to Early’s two — including a playoff warm-up victory over Brock — shouldn’t play a factor for either team, according to Waller.
“It’s not an advantage or disadvantage either way,” Waller said. “That’s what their preference was and we wanted to play a series last weekend. They have lost two games though, and we haven’t lost any in the playoffs yet.”
The recent history between the two teams will have no bearing on this weekend’s results either. In fact, very few Lady Horns were even in high school when Hawley knocked Early out of the playoffs in 2006.
“I only have three girls that start for me that were a part of the team two years ago,” Waller said. “The rest are freshmen and sophomores and they’ve had pretty good luck against Hawley in summer ball in the past.”
While Early boasts the state ranking, Hawley is loaded with playoff experience. Just one season ago, the Lady Cats advanced to the regional finals.
“Hawley is a team that knows how to prepare for the playoffs and their players get ready for big games,” Waller said. “They’re going to give us their best and we expect nothing but their best effort.”
While many of the Lady Horns will be facing Hawley for the first time at the high school playoff level, Lady Cats pitcher Pee Wee Burton is still on the roster. Two years ago, Burton struck out eight, allowed three hits and retired the Lady Horns in order in five of seven innings of Hawley’s 8-1 bi-district win.
“(Burton) still throws the ball well and makes you chase stuff,” Waller said. “But I feel like if she keeps it around the plate, we’ll be able to hit.”
Offensive production had been the Lady Horns’ weakness in the playoffs in recent years, but Early’s nine-run outburst in the area round surpassed the number of runs the Lady Horns scored in its previous three trips to the postseason (seven).
“The girls knew to be more successful this season they were going to have to hit the ball,” Waller said. “They came into this year focused on their drills and they worked harder in their drills. We’ve also done more work on specific situations. They’ve bought into it and it’s paid off.”
Against Junction, Early demonstrated the balance it possesses throughout the lineup. Five Lady Horns — Sarah Russell, Kayla Dickerson, Kaitlin Sliger, Tylene Middleton and Tresta Donahoo — recorded one RBI, while Shandi Winstead and Angela Sanderson led the charge with two RBIs apiece.
Entering this weekend’s series, the Lady Horns are batting over .400 as a team and they’ve doubled the number of extra-base hits they recorded last year.
As impressive as Early’s offense performed last weekend, the Lady Horns’ pitching staff will likely determine whether the team is playing in the regional semifinals next weekend. Early sports one of the deepest rotations in Class 2A, but Janna Allen has seen the bulk of the work lately. Against Junction, Allen allowed four runs on five hits with seven strikeouts and two walks.
Waller stated the possibility exists to use the entire pitching staff this weekend, which also includes Sliger, Loudermilk and Winstead.
“I feel very strong about our pitching,” Waller said. “Janna has worked hard all year. Kaitlin is getting back to her old self and she’ll be ready to pitch this weekend. Julia and Shandi will also be ready if need be. Pitching depth will be crucial this weekend and I’m confident it will pay off for us.”
The survivor of the series will face either Post (20-5) or Stinnett (21-7) in the regional semifinals next weekend.