The Belton Lady Tigers traveled to Whitney for a best-of-three area playoff series against the Wylie Lady Pirates.
The Lady Pirates, who finished fourth in District 6-6A behind Plano, Plano East, and Plano West, was battle tested coming in. They pulled off a sweep of District 5-6A champion Flower Mound in the bi-district playoff round.
The teams fought through a hard series on the Wildcats field turf. When the turf pebbles cleared, Wylie emerged as the victor.
It was a trio of fights, for sure.
In the opener last Friday night, Belton jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first on an inside-the-park home run by Mackenzie Bartlett. Caleigh Robinson singled and Madison Ward doubled, but Robinson was thrown out at third by right fielder Skyler Shaw to end the inning.
Bella Dayton tripled to start the bottom of the frame for Wylie. Jessica Lee singled home Dayton to tie the game.
Belton scored twice in the top of the second. Madison Bartlett and Meredith Lusby singled to start the inning. With one out, Ryleigh Jarvis slow roller was thrown away by Jaylinn Reyes, scoring Madison Bartlett and Lusby to give the Lady Tigers a 3-1 lead.
The Lady Tigers scored again in the top of the fourth, as Avery Drake drove in Lusby with a single to give Belton a 4-1 lead.
Wylie scored six times in the fourth inning. An error and a fielder’s choice set up a two-run single from Ashling Shahan. A run-scoring single by Dayton forced Belton head coach Matt Blackburn to switch from starting pitcher Madison Cotton to Taylor Tubbs. Alexis Perry set up a two-run triple by Katelyn Belch. The Lady Pirates led 7-4 after four innings.
After Wylie added an inside-the-park homer from Dayton in the bottom of the sixth, Belton mounted one more charge to attempt to tie the ballgame in the top of the seventh. With one out, Drake singled and moved to second on Bethany Edwards’ single. Southpaw Annie Gunther was able to retire Robinson on a flyout to Rylen Wiggins at shortstop to end the game.
Lusby went 2-of-2 with a walk and two runs scored. Drake added two hits and a run batted in.
Cotton took the loss, who cruised along until the rough fourth inning. She dealt 3 2/3 innings, allowed six runs (one earned) on six hits, walked three and struck out four. Tubbs pitched 2 2/3 innings in relief, allowed two runs on four hits and struck out one.
Dayton went 3-of-3 for the Lady Pirates, scored three times and drove in two runs. Belch and Dayton each drove in a pair of runs.
Gunther picked up the complete game victory, allowing four runs (two earned) on nine hits, walked three and struck out two.
The teams returned Saturday morning for the second game. Wylie jumped on Cotton immediately for two runs. Dayton and Lee walked to start the game, with Dayton stealing two bases and Lee swiping one. Cotton struck out Perry and Belch. Wiggins hit a pitch to right field for a single to score Dayton and Lee to give the Lady Pirates a 2-0 lead. Reyes struck out to end the inning.
Belton cut the deficit in half in the bottom of the frame. Drake walked and stole second base. Edwards singled up the middle to score the speedy Drake and pull the Lady Tigers to within a run, 2-1.
Cotton was electric in the second inning, striking out the side in just 11 pitches.
After having left a runner in scoring position to end the second, Belton’s defense came to left again in the third. After Dayton flew out to Cotton in the circle start the third, Lee tripled. With the infield drawn in to defend a potential run score, Perry hit a grounder to Lusby at shortstop and Lee was caught between third base and the plate. Lusby ran at Lee and threw to Edwards at the plate. Lee made a couple runs back and forth up the line before Lusby applied the tag. Perry scooted to third during the rundown. After Belch walked, Wiggins grounded out to the third base to end the inning.
The Lady Tigers racked up five pivotal runs in the bottom of the fourth inning. Madison Ward was hit by the first pitch of the inning in the facemask and trotted down to first base. Madison Bartlett walked and with one out, Miranda Davila reached on a bunt single to load the bases. Jarvis, fighting on an 0-2 count, went with a pitch to right field. It dropped in front of Shaw to score Ward and Madison Bartlett to give Belton a 3-2 lead. Drake reached on a fielder’s choice to reload the bases. With two outs, Edwards hit a smash to the left centerfield, which cleared the bases for a triple and gave Belton a 6-2 lead.
Cotton retired the next six Lady Pirates and her offense picked up two more runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. Drake singled and stole second base. Mackenzie Bartlett sacrificed Drake to third base and Edwards tripled home Drake. Edwards’ triple broke the single-season hits mark with 62 for the season, eclipsing Drake’s mark of 61 in 2016. Robinson singled in courtesy runner Payton Cook to make the score 8-2. Madison Sniggs came in to run for Robinson and moved to third on walks to Madison Bartlett and Lusby. Gunther induced a groundout to Davila to end the inning.
With one out in the top of the seventh, Shahan and Dayton singled. Both runners advanced on a passed ball and Shahan scored on a sacrifice fly. Cotton got Perry to line out to Lusby to end the ballgame.
Edwards went 4-of-4 with two triples and five runs batted in. Drake scored three times, Lusby went 2-of-3, Jarvis drove home two runs and Robinson went 1-of-4 with an RBI.
Cotton picked up the complete game win. She pitched seven innings, allowed three runs on five hits, walked four and struck out seven.
Gunther picked up the loss for Wylie in the circle. She went seven innings, allowed eight runs on 11 hits, hit a batter, walked four and struck out one.
Belton’s win set up the winner-take-all third game.
Dayton walked and stole second base to lead off the ballgame. Lee sacrificed her to third base. Tubbs got Perry to foul out to Madison Bartlett at third base and struck out Belch to retire the Lady Pirates.
While Belton managed just a walk in their first two at-bats, Wylie gave the Lady Tigers a scare in the third inning. Brittanie Henry and Shahan hit back-to-back singles to start the inning. Dayton flew out to Drake on the run in the left centerfield gap and Tubbs struck out Lee and Perry to end the threat. Tubbs retired the side in the fourth inning.
Belton was able to score three times in the bottom of the fourth inning. Edwards walked to start the inning and stole second base. With one out, Ward walked on four pitches and Madison Bartlett singled home Edwards to put Belton up 1-0. Lusby drove in Ward with a single and Davila reached on an infield single to load the bases. Jarvis reached on a fielder’s choice went an attempt to throw out Lusby at third was bobbled on the bag by Reyes. The fielder’s choice scored Madison Bartlett to put Belton up 3-0.
Shaw singled to lead off the top of the fifth for Wylie. Tubbs got Henry to foul out to Madison Bartlett at third base and Shahan to fly out to Ward in left field. On the first pitch to Dayton, Shaw bolted towards second. Edwards threw down to second base and Lusby applied the tag to end the inning.
Gunther retired Belton in order in the fifth inning and Wylie rallied to tie in the top of the sixth inning. Dayton and Lee singled to start the inning. Perry drove the pair in and was courtesy run for by Brittney White. Belch sacrificed White to second base, which set up an RBI single by Reyes to tie the ballgame at 3-3.
After Gunther retired the Lady Tigers in order in the sixth inning, Blackburn went to the bullpen and sent Cotton into the circle to start the seventh inning to change things up. Shahan reached on an infield single. Dayton drew a four-pitch walk and was sacrificed to second base by Lee. Perry reached on a fielder’s choice when Lusby threw out Shahan at the plate trying to score. Dayton moved to third base on the play. Belch’s roller up the middle just got by the outstretched arm of Mackenzie Bartlett and rolled into centerfield to score Dayton and moved courtesy runner White to third base. Wiggins hit a ball deep in the hole at shortstop and beat Lusby’s throw at first to score White. The play gave Wylie a 5-3 lead.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Mackenzie Bartlett walked. But a short fly out to Belch at second base advanced Wylie to the regional quarterfinals again district for Plano West and ended the Lady Tigers’ season.
Dayton went 2-of-4 with two runs scored. Shahan went 2-of-4 and Shaw went 2-of-3 for the Lady Pirates.
Belton drew six walks in the game, two each to Mackenzie Bartlett, Edwards and Ward. Drake, Madison Bartlett, Lusby and Davila picked up the hits for Belton, who stranded seven runners on base.
Tubbs pitched six innings, allowed three runs on eight hits, walked one and struck out three. Cotton took the loss in relief, pitched one inning, allowed two runs on three hits, walked one and struck out one.
“Tubbs was dealing, working her way in and out of jams,” Blackburn said. “She competed her tail off. I felt like that fourth time through the order I felt like I needed to go with Cotton to switch things up.”
After the loss on Friday night, the team could have packed it in. However, much in the way that the season has gone, the Lady Tigers came out scrapping on Saturday.
“I told them after the way they lost last night (Friday night) and to come out and compete today (Saturday), you did exactly what I asked of you. It’s never easy.”
Wylie scrapped just as hard as Belton in the series and did just enough to get through the series.
“My hats off to them, they never stopped,” Blackburn said. “When we got those three runs, I felt that they quit a little bit. They found something in the tank and persevered. Heather (Wylie head coach Heather Damron) is a good coach and had her kids prepared. Their lefty (Gunther, who pitched all 21 innings) will be sore all the way to the next series. We did our job of being patient at the plate, but she did a great job in the last few innings of getting the pitches in there and force us to make mistakes. The loss ended Belton’s season at 27-8. It was far better than expected, considering the team lost a four-year starting pitcher and a handful of all-state talent to graduation in 2016. The team went 31-4, which included a 29-game winning streak that went on for over three months. It ended the careers of Meredith Lusby and Jamecia Houston. Lusby was a four-year starter at shortstop and had an amazing series, going 5-of-8 with two walks and making several key plays at shortstop.
“What series for her!” Blackburn said. “At the plate, she struggled all year. She had a .750 on-base percentage for the series. You have a senior who is used to clutch games. The way she played short these last two games were phenomenal. I felt it was important to let Mere and Mimi know what they meant to the program. They gave me over 100 wins in their four years. Mere was a big part of that at shortstop. She’s the first four-year shortstop that I have seen since I have been at Belton and it’s going to be a big loss.”
The future looks promising for the young Lady Tigers.
“We’re young and I told them that after the game,” Blackburn said. “This sucks for the seniors, but I told the rest of them to remember this taste. It’s not a pleasant one. Let this be what drives you moving forward in what you do and let’s see what happens.”