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Chiefland advances to fourth straight championship game on stunning seventh-inning comeback

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By Sean Arnold

In the two state tournament games played between Chiefland and Wewahitchka, the Lady Indians have been held scoreless in 11 of 13 innings.

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At the state finals last year, CMHS poured on 12 runs in the fourth inning to defeat the Gators 12-6, claiming its third straight state title.

On Wednesday, Chiefland’s 14-game winning streak was in jeopardy, as was a shot at a fourth state championship, as it trailed 1-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh of the Class 1A semifinals against WHS.

With their seemingly bottomless well of playoff magic, the Lady Indians solved it with a sudden offensive explosion, culminating in a walk-off, two-run double by sophomore Macie Thomas that lifted CMHS to a 2-1 win in Vero Beach.

On Thursday, Chiefland (21-6) squares off against Union County (23-2) in the state championship game at 1:35 p.m. The Fightin’ Tigers of Lake Butler, who came-from-behind for a 4-3 walk-off win on an error against Chipley in the other semifinal, defeated the Lady Indians twice this season (11-1, 10-6), meaning it’s the second time this postseason CMHS will have to get past a team it suffered a couple of prior losses against. The Lady Indians did it last week versus Trenton in the regional finals.

Only three schools in Florida – Bartow (five in a row), Gulliver Prep (Miami) and Naples – have won four consecutive state championships in softball. If Chiefland gets the fourth title, it will have won as many or more state championships in four years as all but five schools in the state have ever won.

At this point, Chiefland’s playoff wins are less feats of magic – no matter how thrilling or improbable – and more akin to the law of gravity. The program’s seniors will look to finish their high school careers Thursday at 16-0 in the playoffs.

It’s a mark that would require magic to surpass.

“It’s unbelievable,” CMHS coach Wayne Weatherford said of the 15 straight playoff wins. “When you’re out there with those girls, you don’t know that you’ve won a state championship; you’re in that moment. It can go either way.

“I’ve used the word maturity a lot this year, but it’s really experience, and it shows.”

Before the seventh inning, the Lady Indians managed just one hit – and one base runner – against Florida Gulf Coast signee Brianna Bailey. That fifth-inning Samantha Rolfe single, which landed in shallow right-center field, came with two outs, and Bailey followed it with her eighth of nine strikeouts to move things along.

“She had new speeds we hadn’t really seen this year, so I felt like I couldn’t get my hands out quick enough,” Rolfe said. “But after I struck out the first at-bat, I told my teammates I wasn’t going to strike out again.

“I doubted us a little bit until LP (Lauren Parker) looked at me and said, ‘Sam, we still get to bat.’ I said, ‘You’re right, we’ve got this. We do this all the time.’”

Senior Emily Hallman ignited the Chiefland offense in the seventh with a well-hit ground-ball single up the middle to lead off the frame.

“I told myself I’m not going to let this be my last at-bat; I’m not going to let this be my last game; I’m not going to go out in high school with a loss on me,” the catcher said. “It’s never over until they get that last third out, I think that’s the mentality you’ve got to take.

“(Bailey) was a little different with the ball in the windup than what we’ve seen before, but once we picked up on it in that last inning, we killed it.”

Senior center fielder Lauren Parker was hit by a pitch on the ensuing at-bat, before senior shortstop Takiya London lift a high looping base hit into no-man’s land in shallow center to load the bases.

“Her movement on the ball, we haven’t really seen much of that,” Parker said of the pitches. “That curveball that she was throwing was breaking right as we swung, so I personally slid in as far as possible because she kept throwing them so far out, and then she came in too far and hit my elbow.”

“We kept saying the break is going to go to the outside, so crowd the plate,” London echoed. “We’d crowd the plate and she’d throw it inside, and she’s got a riseball, and obviously we’re not too good at riseballs. So we were trying to choke up and let the ball do the work, because she’s got the speed and movement.

“We realized a senior had to start it off because it drops from us,” London added. “When I was at bat, I was crying because I didn’t know what I had to do. I knew she was going to throw a strike, because I’m tall enough that even a riseball is in my zone, and it’s going to have movement. I just told myself to get in the box and swing the bat.”

Thomas worked the count full, forcing Bailey to lace the zone or face surrendering the lead on a walk. The sophomore pulled the pitch down the third-base line, where it rolled deep toward the left-field corner, allowing Hallman, standing at third, and Parker to easily score. London was also crossing the plate by the time the ball made it back into the infield.

Thomas is the team’s only full-time underclassman starter that bats..

“It felt amazing,” she said. “As an underclassman playing with all the seniors that have won three (state championships), it really means a lot to be able to step up.”

Her game-winning smash was the team’s only extra-base hit, and only the second of the game, as defense and pitching controlled most of the action until that decisive rally.

“I knew that it would at least bring Emily (Hallman) in,” Thomas said. “Lauren (Parker) was on second base pointing her hand to where the ball was going to go, and that really helped me out.

“Before the game, Coach Jimmy (Anderson) was telling us, ‘Don’t try to hit it over the fence, just try to get on base.”

Chiefland didn’t reach second base until the final inning.

“Jimmy (Anderson) and I had talked about it maybe not being our day,” Weatherford said. “I said it may not be, but it ain’t over yet. He’s told me the same thing all year. He knows the girls, he’s been with them forever, and he kept saying, ‘They’re not done yet. Just wait.’

“We, of course, didn’t want to wait until the seventh inning. It worked out that way. We had that spark from Emily (Hallman) because she was not finished yet, she wanted to get in there and do something else.”

In an eery echo to last year’s semifinal round, which got delayed a day due to weather, there was a two-hour break in action after a downpour interrupted the top of the first inning. That significantly changed the conditions of the field, making it tougher for hitters to sneak grounders past infielders on the slower clay, but also tougher for outfielders to chase down shallow flies, which accounted for half the hits in the game as well as an error on a not-so-routine ball in right field.

Several players noted the swampy conditions in the outfield, especially in right field.

Freshman Gator catcher Gracie Price drove in her club’s run on a two-out, line-drive double to left field in the third after a couple of sacrifice bunts had fellow freshman Savannah Lister (run) standing on third.

Lady Indians sophomore Kensley Durrance only needed two strikeouts to record the complete-game, one-run win, allowing no earned runs, one walk and three hits, including two by Price.

For the second game in a row, Durrance was sporting earplugs to block out the noise and help herself focus. She says the grueling heat of summer travel ball has prepared her to handle the back-to-back midday assignments in the final four.

“When they scored the run, I was kind of like, ‘Well darn,’” the sophomore said. “But you’ve got to stay strong throughout the whole thing – let it go. You can’t change the past, but you can improve the future. Again, the earplugs were clutch.”

Durrance hat-tipped her defense.

“I couldn’t have done it without my defense. With a tight game like that, you’ve got to produce groundouts and just let your defense play. (Wewahitchka) hit the ball. They were a good-hitting team and had a good defense. I thought they were a well put-together team, and they’re young.

“They’ll probably be back here sometime soon.”

After helping shut down Trenton’s short game, Chiefland third baseman Erika Gilliam played stalwart defense again in the corner, limiting the payoff of those WHS bunts, and proving equally adept on the hard grounders. The Gators were prudent on the base paths, after Hallman and the Chiefland defense flexed its muscle against Trenton’s runners in the previous round.

“The conditions made it where if they bunted, it would kill the ball more,” Gilliam said. “So coach had me charging a lot faster. It didn’t really worry me because I’ve played in all kinds of conditions. I was trying to be prepared for anything that came my way.”

The remainder of the infield – London, Sydney Parks and Thomas – was also sharp.

Gilliam and London said the game brought to mind the team’s eighth-inning walk-off win against Jay in the 2015 state championship game.

“There were some moments where I thought maybe this is just not our day,” Gilliam said, “but then a senior would come along and say, ‘You need to keep your head up. You’ve got this.’

“We kind of just told ourselves that this has to be our day.”

“Being down the whole game, not getting anything started, I’m in the dugout saying something’s got to break,” London said. “We’ve got to change something.

“We were about to bunt our way to it. You’ll at least see the ball.”

Parker and Rolfe hauled in multiple hard-hit balls in center and left.

“The outfield was so muddy, so thick from all the rain, it was coming up to my ankles,” Parker said.

“When we started out, everyone was so pumped and ready to play, and then we had the rain delay,” the center fielder added. “We went back to the hotel and then we ate and I think it made us kind of sluggish.”

Bailey dramatically switched up the speed of her pitches and sprinkled the outside corner with her curveball against Chiefland’s all-right-handed lineup, at one time retiring 14 straight batters, while not allowing a walk in the game.

“She’s a great pitcher,” Weatherford said. “I give them a lot of credit. We’ve had a lot of luck on our side. We started changing our batting stance because (Bailey) was so good.”

The Gator defense didn’t commit an error, and freshman Aleah Wooten was especially strong at second base, where she stole away a few potential hits.

“She was unstoppable, I’ll give it to her,” CMHS senior second baseman Sydney Parks said of her counterpart. “But we wanted it too bad. I was just hoping my plays (on defense) would make up for the offense, where I wasn’t doing too well.

“I was doubting myself, I was bawling. I thought it was over.”

WHS defeated Union County 3-2 in the 2016 semifinals to face Chiefland in the championship.