Madison County's third-straight trip to the state championship tournament in Columbus did not go as planned over the weekend.
The Red Raiders won their first game over Northside, Columbus in dramatic fashion before consecutive losses to Heritage and Marist eliminated Madison County from the tournament. Heritage and Marist later met in the finals and Heritage won to claim the state championship.
"It's always a privilege to be down there and I'm very proud of the girls," said head coach Ken Morgan. "Looking back, we lost to the No. 1 team and the No. 2 team, as far as where they finished at. We didn't quite get to where we wanted to be, that's just the way the ball bounces sometimes.
"I'm really, really proud of the girls, the community, parents and boosters and our coaching staff. They all did a great job to get us where we were."
Madison County (23-12, 11-1 Region 8-AAAA) opened the tournament against Northside with a comeback catalyzed by Ella Chancey. Her solo, two-out home run in the bottom of the seventh inning sparked a mini-rally. Kennedy Dixon followed with a solo homer of her own to send the game to extra innings tied 5-5. In the eighth inning, Chancey returned to the plate with bases loaded and one out to hit a walk-off deep to center field. Madison County won 6-5.
"That was one of the most exciting games I've ever been a part of in my 30 years of coaching," Morgan said. "It was a fun place to be, (it) had a great atmosphere. It's something I'll remember the rest of my life. It was the most excitement I've seen around the softball field in a long time. It was fun to be a part of.
"That was great by Ella to get the rally going in that seventh inning. She found the first pitch and Kennedy did the same after her."
The Red Raiders clung to a 1-0 lead over Heritage going into the bottom of the seventh in its second game. Skylar Minish's home run was the only run scored by the Raiders to that point.
Emma Strickland started the inning well with a strikeout, but an error and double followed to put two runners in scoring position. A ground ball and a slide into home plate tied the game before a three-run homer by Heritage sent Madison County to the losers bracket with a 4-1 loss.
Madison County needed to beat Marist to keep its state title hopes alive and were off to a good start when Dixon's two-run homer in the first inning gave the Raiders a 2-1 lead. But Marist scored four runs with two outs in the top of the second and added another two-out run in the sixth inning to beat the Raiders 6-2.
"Playing with Heritage was another great game," Morgan said. "We didn't score enough runs to hang on there, but credit to them for doing the same thing (walk-off) to us. It was fun to be a part of.
'We were a little flat going into the Marist game and we didn't swing the bat as well as we should have. Credit Marist, they got hot at the right time."
The disappointment of elimination was a stark contrast of the joy the Raiders felt in making the trip to Columbus. Near the end of the regular season, the Raiders dipped below .500 (9-10) before winning 13 straight games through the final regular season games and the post season.
Along the way, Madison County captured the Region 8-AAAA regular season title and the tournament championship, swept its opening round opponents in the state playoffs and returned to Columbus for the 11th time in program history.
Despite a star-studded rising senior class, Morgan isn't quite ready to launch into the 2020 season, although returning players will report to the weight room soon. Instead, Morgan is looking forward to the last moments with seniors Dixon, Laken Minish and Brooke Hooper in the program.
"We're always looking forward to next year, but we don't want to jump in there too fast," he said. "We really appreciate what the seniors have done in three or four years playing in the program...But we're really excited about next year with all of our pitching coming back and a lot of starters coming back. It's exciting to think about."