— See updates by inning Saturday on The Madison County Journal Facebook page
— See a photo gallery of Thursday and Friday action on The Madison County Journal Facebook page
Will the Madison County Red Raiders and soon-to-retire head coach Doug Kesler make the trek back up Hwy. 85 with the school’s first softball state championship trophy Saturday?
The team enters Saturday’s action with that goal still alive. The next step in that journey is a 9 a.m. matchup with Wayne County at the South Commons Softball Complex.
Madison County advanced to Saturday’s action with a 5-1 victory over Perry Friday evening, following a rain delay of over five hours.
But the soggy conditions didn’t dampen the Raider offense. The girls from Danielsville jumped on top early and never trailed.
Ivie Drake walked to lead off the game, then stole second, advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and crossed the plate on a bunt by Dani Lucas, giving Madison County a 1-0 lead.
The Red Raiders tacked on another run in the third inning, when Kayla Argo, who was hit by a pitch, scored on a sacrifice fly by Lukas.
Perry scored on back-to-back hits in the bottom of the third. But Drake, the Raiders’ catcher, gunned down a runner who strayed too far off second to end the scoring threat.
Drake’s defensive play was complemented the first two days with stellar plays in the field the first two days by her teammates. For instance, second baseman Kristen Moran recorded outs with two diving stabs of the ball against Perry.
Right fielder Jorden Williams, who had a highlight-reel diving catch Thursday evening in foul territory, also rocketed a ball to home plate to gun down a runner trying to score on a sacrifice fly against Perry.
Meanwhile, shortstop Bri Carr continued her sharp play in the field, showing off her vertical leap Thursday to snag a high, blistering liner, while also making numerous put outs on hotly hit ground balls.
The solid defense was particularly crucial Friday night, because a loss would have ended the season for Madison County.
But the Raiders faced the do-or-die game and won with relative ease. The squad tacked on three runs in the fourth inning. An Argo single brought home Williams. Drake doubled to drive home Moran and then scored on a fielder’s choice by Carr.
Alexis Damron went the distance and recorded the win for Madison County, giving up five hits, a walk and a run, while striking out seven.
Madison County was forced into the “losers’ bracket” due to a 5-0 loss Thursday evening to defending state champion Northwest Whitfield, who downed the Raiders twice in the 2012 state tournament.
Junior pitcher BriLeigh Baggett hurled a no-hitter for the Bruins, with the Raiders managing just a walk by Moran.
Randee Bettis took the loss, giving up two runs in three and two-thirds innings, while Damron pitched in relief and gave up three runs in the sixth inning.
While Madison County never recovered from a slow start to Northwest Whitfield, the Raiders rallied in their first game Thursday for a 5-3 come-from-behind victory over Woodland.
The Raiders struck first, when Williams crossed the plate on a Woodland throwing error after a sharply hit grounder by Drake.
But the Wolfpack answered with two runs in the top of the third, scoring on a throwing error and a sacrifice fly. Woodland tacked on a third run in the fifth to pull ahead 3-1.
However, Madison County rallied. With one out in the bottom of the sixth inning, Williams and Casie Wade walked and Argo singled to load the bases for Drake.
The four-year star once again came through for Madison County in the clutch, ripping a double down the left-field line to score Williams and Wade to tie the game.
“I was so nervous,” said Drake. “But I knew I was better than the pitcher, and I knew I was going to hit it, and I just stayed on it and hit it.”
Argo scored from third on a pitch that bounced off the catcher’s mitt. And Drake managed to come all the way home from second on the Wolfpack miscue, putting Madison County up 5-3.
The comeback win has not been unusual for the 35-3 Raiders this year. The team has been down two and three runs to some quality opponents in 2013 and fought back to win.
“We never quit fighting,” said Drake. “It just takes one person to get in our face and to just get us back into it. We just keep fighting and never give up.”