Defending the crown

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Lady Indians make fourth straight final four behind defensive effort in Trenton

By Sean Arnold

They met four times this year, but the fate of the Chiefland and Trenton softball teams’ respective seasons was largely determined by a short sequence of plays during a couple of innings last Tuesday in the regional championship game.

After watching a pair of Lady Tigers (22-3) runners get into scoring position with the score knotted at 0-0, the Lady Indians swung the game around on a leaping grab by center fielder Lauren Parker and then an RBI hit by Emily Hallman, sending the club to its fourth straight Class 1A state final four on a 3-0 win in front of a packed crowd in Trenton.

Chiefland (20-6) advanced to face Wewahitchka (20-7-1) in the state semifinals Wednesday May 17 at 1:05 p.m. at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach. The teams met in the state championship game last May, when the Lady Indians rode a 12-run fourth inning to a 12-6 win, capturing their third consecutive state title.

If CMHS prevails Wednesday, it will face the winner between Union County (22-2) and Chipley (17-7) at 1:35 p.m. Thursday.

The three-time defending state champions found themselves in uncanny territory heading into the game against Trenton. The Lady Indians had lost two of the teams’ previous three meetings in convincing fashion, including an 8-1 defeat in the district championship game in Chiefland, and entered with three times as many losses, putting them into rare underdog status by some estimates.

But the Chiefland seniors had seen this movie before as freshmen when they came back to knock off Dixie County in the regional finals after getting handily defeated by the Bears in three meetings. The Lady Indians had also already won in Trenton earlier in the season, and came back in the seventh inning to eliminate TMHS in the regional championship last postseason.

“Trenton’s up and coming,” CMHS coach Wayne Weatherford said. “They’re going to be trouble and everybody knows it. We had to win tonight because we had to prove ourselves. There’s been a lot of trash talk because we’re so close to each other.

“I felt we overlooked some of the games during the regular season. Hopefully, the girls can go back and win it again, and if we can’t, we’ll give it all we have. I don’t know anybody in this whole area that’s went to the final four four years in a row, so I’m proud of that, no matter the outcome.”

Chiefland turned in its best defensive performance of the four meetings after getting previously outplayed in that phase by Trenton. That edge was never bigger than in the bottom of the fourth, when Trenton posed its biggest scoring threat of the game after senior Kyndal Williams boarded on a hit-by-pitch to lead off the frame. Williams advanced to second base on a bunt, but Erika Gilliam’s defensive play at third base, one of several for the junior, ensured the first Trenton out and prevented a second base runner.

TMHS sophomore Bryn Thomas followed with an infield hit toward the 5-6 hole, leaving runners on first and second with one out.

Chiefland senior catcher Emily Hallman then caught Williams floating off the bag with a sharp throw to second, eventually leading to Williams getting tagged out in a rundown for the team’s second out.

It was the second time in the game Hallman, who recorded four assists and reached base three times to help lead Chiefland at the plate, picked a base runner off at second.

“It’s been four years and they still haven’t (got the memo),” Hallman said when asked about the underestimation of her arm by opposing base runners. “They all know that I don’t play when I have the adrenaline going. All of my throws tonight were boom, boom, boom, on target.”

Hallman and the Lady Indians missed a third pickoff by a hair on a rundown between first and second, at least preventing another stolen base in the process.

“The base-running stuff, I can’t explain that other than just nerves,” TMHS coach Todd Bryant said. “You’ve got to score more than zero runs to win.

“Last year, we couldn’t expect to win,” Bryant added. “(Chiefland) had a heavier team last year in terms of experienced kids, but this year we were cruising along there. We let Chiefland hang around, and if you let them hang around, they will find a way to beat you, and they did.

“I hope they win it all. I do.”

Senior Jaycee Thomas then delivered another infield hit for Trenton as the younger Thomas tied Chiefland shortstop Takiya London to the third-base bag on a ball hit deep toward the hole on the left side. Jaycee Thomas took second on defensive indifference, putting runners at second and third with two outs.

Trenton then lifted a long fly ball to left-center with enough carry to score both runs and set up another, but Parker, who had inched over when she saw the upcoming pitch sign, ran it down in a full sprint and leaped toward the fence – draped with raucous Trenton fans in the back of pickup trucks – for a multiple-run saving grab.

The Chiefland offense fed off Parker’s momentous defensive play, as it started to make more contact against eighth-grade phenom Darian Ingram, who had mostly quieted the CMHS bats this season in the circle with her mix of riseballs and curveballs.

An infield error allowed CMHS senior outfielder Aleaha Rhoomes to reach with nobody out in the top of the fifth. Senior second baseman Sydney Parks singled up the middle to board and move Rhoomes to second, setting up an RBI liner up the middle by Hallman, lifting Chiefland to a 1-0 advantage.

The Lady Indians were unable to add more after loading the bases with one out, following the first of two intentional walks against London.

Both teams were held scoreless in the sixth despite putting runners in scoring position, as Gilliam came up with another play on a Trenton bunt.

“(Gilliam) would be our player of the game because she stopped so many and she shut down that short game that they’re so good at,” Weatherford said.

Chiefland pitcher Kensley Durrance, meanwhile, remained steady in front of her stalwart defense.

Insurance would come for Chiefland in the seventh, as the club loaded the bases with two outs on a Hallman hit down the third-base line and a couple of intentional walks to London and sophomore Macie Thomas.

“I want them to walk me because I’m not the only hitter on the team,” London said.

That brought to the plate senior left fielder Samantha Rolfe, who worked herself into a 3-2 count before mashing a line-drive through the middle of the field to score Hallman and London on a two-run single.

“I kind of took it as an insult because I felt like they thought I couldn’t hit,” Rolfe said of Trenton’s decision to intentionally walk a pair of hitters before her at-bat. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve been in this position before,’ so I felt pretty confident about it.

“I had a 3-2 count, so I knew I was going to hit or I was going to walk. I wasn’t striking out.”

Chiefland sealed it in the seventh on a pop-out to Gilliam, a strikeout and a groundout to Durrance. The sophomore picked up all three of her strikeouts in the final two innings, finishing with five hits and no walks allowed in collecting the shutout.

“Kensley was cool,” Weatherford said. “I give her a lot of credit. She was determined.”

The sophomore wore earplugs to block out the distractions. Her pitches, and the legality thereof, had been the target of some behind-the-scenes gamesmanship in the rivalry. She was even called for an illegal pitch to start the district championship game.

“Coming into the season, it was my goal to help take my team to the final four,” Durrance said. “(The earplugs) really helped put me in my own little world. They helped me throw my own game.

“I definitely feel like I got stronger, but mostly because of my defense. I have probably one of the best defenses I could ever ask for. For them to make plays like they did, like LP’s (Parker’s) catch at the fence, that was the most amazing thing ever and it just made me stronger.”

Hallman and Rolfe finished 2 for 4.

Bryn Thomas (2 for 2) and Josie NesSmith (2 for 4) had a pair of hits apiece for Trenton, which captured its first district championship this year since 2001. Ingram fanned seven and walked five while surrendering five hits.

Both coaches cited Chiefland’s experience – led by its six seniors – as a deciding factor. Trenton started four middle schoolers and a freshman.

“The thing we had the advantage on tonight I think is the maturity,” Weatherford said. “We had six seniors on the field that carried the other girls.

“I think you’ve got to give credit to those (Trenton) girls, they’re going to be phenomenal, but it’s our night tonight and we came out and showed it.”