Apalachee High School head softball coach Allan Bailey has preached the motto, “Whatever it takes,” this season. And on Wednesday, Oct. 9 — when the Wildcats started with a runner automatically at second base in the bottom of the 10th inning of a tied third and decisive game of their first-round state playoff against Harrison — they knew they had to get the winning run across, whatever it took.
The run scored in an unconventional way, but Bailey and his team were happy to take it. With the bases loaded and no one out, Morgan Reynolds’ line drive was snagged by Harrison shortstop Ansley Yantis. But when Yantis tried to double S’Niyah Stinson off first base, her low throw glanced off Stinson’s heel and the ball trickled far away enough for Tiyara Wingfield to scamper home and give the Wildcats a thrilling 2-1 victory over the defending GHSA Class AAAAAA champions.
With the victory, Apalachee (17-9-1) rallied to win the series 2-1 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight season. The Wildcats will travel to Effingham County for a best-of-three series that is set to begin Wednesday, Oct. 16, in Springfield.
“That’s just been the story of our team. We were willing to do whatever to get that run,” Bailey, in his first season at the helm of the softball program, said of the win. “In a game like this, where there weren’t going to be a lot of mistakes, and facing a great pitcher, we knew it was going to be a battle to get a couple of runs. We made the big plays when we needed to, and it worked out for us.
"This is a fun group to coach.”
After Stinson gave Apalachee a solid pitching performance in a 9-4 victory in game 2 on Tuesday, Oct. 8 to keep them alive, the Wildcats turned to the senior again to start game 3. And she responded, tossing four shutout innings and allowing just one hit and two walks before giving way to the team’s ace, junior Emily Hodnett, who went the final six innings, allowed just one run and pitched her way out of a few jams.
“We’ve got two really great pitchers,” Bailey said. “S’Niyah had the hot hand coming in, and we felt like she was the best option to start. She was really effective. She was living down in the zone, and with her velocity and downward movement, they had had a hard time getting to it. There were just gutsy performances by the kids all the way around.”
The Wildcats grabbed an early lead in the bottom of the second on a two-out RBI single by Sam Woody that scored Alexis Griffith. The Hoyas (16-12) tied the game in the fifth on an RBI double by Grier Bruce, and pinch runner Reagan Janney tried to score the go-ahead run on the same play but was cut down on a perfect relay from Griffith to Wingfield to catcher Madyson Coe for the second out of the inning. After a walk, Hodnett got Yantis to pop out to keep the score at 1-1.
The Wildcats got another out at home in the top of the seventh. With runners on first and second and two out, Bayleigh Rouse hit a routine grounder to short but beat the throw out when Wingfield’s high throw pulled first baseman Katelyn Flanders off the bag. However, Flanders recovered and threw out Emma Grace Walker at the plate to end the inning.
“Those relays, bunt coverages, all those fundamental situations we’ve worked on are so important, and it showed in this game,” Bailey said. “It’s nice to see the hard work you put in on that stuff pay off.”
The Wildcats had a golden scoring opportunity in the bottom of the seventh when Griffith singled with one out, stole second and moved to third on a single by Woody, who then took second to keep Apalachee out of a ground ball double play opportunity. But though Kensley Kraus reached first on a bunt, her attempt didn’t travel far enough to allow Griffith to try to score, and Harrison pitcher Abby Gravlin wiggled out of trouble by getting Coe to pop out to short and Wingfield to fly out to right and send the contest into extra innings.
Neither team scored in the eighth or ninth, and the game went to the 10th, triggering the high school softball rule where teams start the inning with a runner on second and no one out.
After Hodnett worked around that disadvantage in the top half by getting a strikeout and a fly out to strand the Hoyas' runner at third, the Wildcats started the bottom of the frame with Wingfield in scoring position. The Hoyas opted to intentionally walk Hodnett to set up a force play. And after Wingfield and courtesy runner Allona Norrell moved up on a wild pitch, they gave a free pass to Stinson to set up another force situation, leading to the final play of the game and Yantis’ fateful decision to try to double off Stinson.
“The biggest thing is we were creating pressure all night long and we handled their pressure really well,” Bailey said. “It was just bound to happen for us and we deserved to win. I couldn’t be prouder of the girls for battling the way they did. We beat a really good team, and now we get to go play another round and see what can happen.”
The Wildcats, the No. 2 seed from Region 8, will have their work cut out for them when they face Region 2 champ Effingham County, which outscored Lovejoy by a combined 39-0 in two first-round games, with a trip to the double-elimination Elite Eight tournament in Columbus on the line.
“They’re a great team,” Bailey said of the Rebels, who will enter the series at 24-3 and winners of 16 straight. “Their record speaks for itself. We feel like the caliber softball up here is pretty good, too. We played a really tough non-region schedule to prepare us for this series (against Harrison) and the next series, and Columbus has been our goal the whole year.
“We feel like our girls are ready, and with the dominant pitching we’ve had so far, we feel really confident about going down there.”
The series was initially scheduled to begin Tuesday, Oct. 15, but was pushed back a day due to the threat of rain across the state Tuesday. A doubleheader will be played Wednesday, beginning at 4 p.m. An if-necessary third game is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17.
Apalachee 2, Harrison 1 (10 innings)
H 000 010 000 0 — 1 7 1
A 010 000 000 1 — 2 8 3