WICHITA FALLS — Staring at a five-run deficit and only six outs to play with, the Bangs Lady Dragons’ 10-game win streak, as well as their momentum in their Region I-2A softball semifinal series against the Bushland Lady Falcons, were in serious jeopardy.
But the Lady Dragons’ flare for the dramatic — which they demonstrated repeatedly in Friday night’s 10-9, eight-inning series-opening victory — kicked in, which set the stage for a victory for the ages.
Down 8-3 heading to the bottom of the sixth inning, the Lady Dragons chalked up five runs to pull even. Then, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, right fielder Sarah Garcia reached on of only two Bushland errors — after the Lady Falcons committed seven in Game 1 — which allowed left fielder Raelee Francois to score the decisive run from third base in a 9-8 thriller Saturday afternoon at Midwestern State University’s Mustang Park.
“This is the greatest moment of our lives and the greatest win we’ve ever had,” said third baseman Courtney Owen, one of eight seniors on the Bangs roster, and a key cog in Saturday’s rally.
“I was running hard, I didn’t know what happened. I was just trying to score Raelee,” Garcia said of the final play. “When I knew she scored it was awesome, the best feeling ever.”
Francois was hit by the first pitch in the bottom of the seventh from Bushland ace Taylor Cates, who came on in relief of Allie Guerrero in the third inning. Francois moved to second base when a third strike got away from Bushland catcher K.K. Begley during Haley Pitts’ at-bat, then Kady Kyle bunted Francois to third base for the second out of the inning.
Through 5.2 innings, Bushland (28-7) had been flawless in the field, but committed its first error after Bangs (26-3) pulled even in the sixth. Then, with the season on the line, Garcia punched a grounder to shortstop Carrie Oyebi, where the ball scooted under her glove, allowing Francois to cross the plate and extend Bangs’ season.
“I just told Sarah to put it in play and don’t try and do too much,” said Bangs head coach Scott Freeman. “We made them make a mistake. We knew they could be shaky at times, but for the most part they were a great defensive team today. But that one defensive mistake helped us out tremendously.”
Added Owen, “I knew they had a lot of pressure on them, and in that situation I would have had a lot of pressure, too. But that was the play we needed, and we pulled through.”
Bushland scored all eight of its runs in the third through fifth innings, which turned an early 2-0 Bangs lead into a 8-3 deficit heading into the bottom of the sixth.
“We just had to get hits,” Freeman said of his mindset heading to the bottom of the sixth. “I felt like if we could get some people on and get some momentum it would really help even if we didn’t win the second game. If we were going to get beat, let’s at least get close and get them on their heels going into the third game.”
Francois drew a walk to start the sixth — one of nine issued by Bushland — which ignited the improbable rally. Pitts followed with an infield single to shortstop, then Kyle beat out a bunt single to load the bases with no outs. Garcia followed with an RBI ground out that plated Francois, and closed the gap to 8-4.
“We knew we were coming back and we knew we were going to beat them,” Garcia said in regard to the team’s mindset in the sixth inning.
Roberts reached on a fielder’s choice as the throw from third base retired Kennedy Deal, running for Pitts, at the plate for the first out of the inning.
Owen, who had been hitless in two previous at-bats, stepped to the plate with the bases still loaded and one down and smashed a triple to the gap in right-center field, allowing Kyle, Garcia and Roberts all to score and bring Bangs within a run at 8-7.
“I went up there knowing I had to get on base,” Owen said. “I saw the perfect pitch and I just stepped into it and drove it and ran as fast as I could.”
Added Freeman, “After Courtney’s triple, our philosophy changed. Once we got there, within a run, we went back to our small ball a little bit, advancing base runners and competing for a chance to win the game.”
With Owen on third and one out, winning pitcher Erin Anderson — who yielded five earned runs on a dozen hits and three walks, while striking out three and stranding 11 runners on base — hit a towering fly ball to deep center field. Owen broke for home on contact, then had to race back to the bag and tag up, but still managed to beat the throw to the plate and knot the score at 8.
“I went too far and Coach told me to get back and tag up,” Owen said. “Then I just sprinted home, and I knew I was safe.”
To go along with their nine walks, the Lady Dragons also collected eight hits — three from Kyle, Owen’s triple and singles by Roberts, Pitts, Cheyenne Edwards and Maddie Browning.
For the second straight game, Bangs grabbed the lead in its first trip to the plate as Kyle reached on a bunt single and Roberts walked with one out in the bottom of the first. With two down, Edwards drew a bases-loaded walk to plate Kyle, then Browning’s bases-loaded free pass — the fourth walk of the inning — scored Roberts.
Bushland surged in front, 4-2, in the third inning on RBI singles by Ashton Miller, Katie Welch and Matti Dix, as well as an RBI walk by Kenedi Morrison.
Bangs crept within 4-3 in the bottom of the third as Anderson walked to start the frame and scored on an RBI ground out by Pitts.
The Lady Falcons then reeled off four more unanswered runs — two in the fourth on one of four Bangs errors and an RBI sacrifice fly from Miller, and a pair in the fifth on a two-RBI triple by Lyndsee Kimmons.
The Lady Dragons will be making their first-ever appearance in the Region I-2A championship round next weekend against undefeated Hawley (33-0) at a time, date and location to be determined later. Prior to this season, Bangs had reached the second round of the playoffs only once.
“It’s an amazing feeling to get this far in the season and still be playing,” Freeman said. “I’m sure a lot of teams would want to trade spots with us right now. You can tell we have eight seniors, that’s for sure. They all stepped up and never got their heads down. I think I pouted more than they did today.”