The East Jackson softball team punched its ticket to the Elite 8 tournament in Columbus after sweeping Pierce County in a second-round playoff series last Wednesday. For the first time in the program’s history, the Eagles are one of eight remaining teams on the cusp of a state championship. But for now, East Jackson is savoring its season-long journey.
“We’re enjoying each moment,” said head coach Donnie Byrom. “It’s about the journey and enjoying all the moments along that journey. We are excited. The girls were pumped and so were our parents and our fans. We travel well. We had a huge group with us in Pierce County almost all the way down in Florida. The excitement level is unmatched.”
East Jackson’s journey culminates this week in Columbus, starting with Thursday’s matchup with 6-AAA champion Calhoun.
The Lady Eagles have defeated two consecutive top-seeded opponents on the road in the 2015 state tournament and get a third-straight with Calhoun. The Yellow Jackets are a daunting 31-3 on the season and made short work of Dawson County and Jackson en route to the Elite 8. But East Jackson has one advantage going into Thursday’s matchup. Calhoun has won its state tournament games against lower-seeded teams at home, while the Lady Eagles have knocked off two top tier teams on the road.
“The advantage we have is that we’ve played four tough games and their draw has been relatively easy,” said Byrom. “They are a city school so they attract a lot of kids from the surrounding areas. They are strong in the circle, they bat strong from top to bottom, and one thing they’ve done is played a tough schedule. They’ve played a lot of teams that are very good in the regular season, so they are a proven team. But again, it’s been about three weeks since they’ve played a tough opponent. I feel like we’ve played teams like them, but it will be a tough game.”
The Eagles have traveled to the borders of Alabama and Florida already and managed to perform at a high level in unfamiliar territory. Byrom hopes the fact that his Eagles are “probably the most well-traveled team” in the state will be a big factor on a neutral field in Columbus.
“They’ve shown the ability to battle in some challenging situations,” he said. “Not only did we have to travel long distances and having to spend the night, we are going into games on the road that have large crowds and fans that are very passionate about their teams. There have been a lot of moments in these games where there is an intense amount of pressure. Our girls have risen to the challenge. They’ve made a lot of big plays, a lot of timely hits and it’s been a total team effort.”
East Jackson and Sonoraville are the only two teams to qualify for the Elite 8 by winning two road playoff games against higher-seeded teams.
The Eagles will open Elite 8 play on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. All Elite 8 games will be held at the Columbus Softball Complex. The tournament semifinals are scheduled for Friday, Oct. 30, while the state championship will take place the following Saturday.
Sweet 16 recap – Game 1
A landslide of runs in the second inning gave East Jackson an early lead in a game that was never in doubt as the Eagles knocked off Pierce County 6-2 in a Sweet 16 matchup.
It didn’t take long for East Jackson’s bats to heat up in enemy territory on Wednesday.
Ashlie Wuertley opened the second inning with a double to centerfield. She advanced to third on a wild pitch before being driven home on a Nicci Murphy single to put the Eagles up 1-0. Becca Hill followed Murphy with a single of her own, while McKenzie Arnold reached first on a fielder’s choice. Murphy was thrown out at third base to give Pierce County’s its second out of the inning. But with the pressure on, East Jackson responded as Lauren Barrett doubled, driving in Hill and Arnold. Faith Grooms drove in Barrett on a single to second base. Grooms then stole second and third before scoring on a Pierce County error to put the Eagles up 5-0.
The Bears finally got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the fourth on a Mary Carson RBI double.
But East Jackson put the game out of reach in the top of the fifth when Mattie Brooks found home plate after a wild pitch. Pierce County’s Sara Beth King homered in the bottom of the seventh, but it was too little too late for the Bears as East Jackson took game 1 of the series 6-2.
Jessie Marvin struck out eight batters and allowed two earned runs in seven innings. Barrett led the Lady Eagles at the plate going 2-for-3 at bat with two RBI.
The Lady Eagles had no intention of spending an additional day in Pierce County as East Jackson escaped the Bears’ den on Wednesday, winning the second game of the Sweet 16 doubleheader.
The Lady Eagle offense wasn’t able to generate the same offensive explosion it did in game one, but at the end of the day, two runs was all pitcher Jessie Marvin needed to leave Pierce County with a win.
The second inning was again a bright spot for the Lady Eagle offense as Lauren Barrett and Faith Grooms both drove runners home on base hits. Pierce County cut the deficit in the top of the third when Mary Carter scored on an Amber Cason double, but Carter would be the last runner to cross home plate for the remainder of the night. Marvin’s performance was surgical as she struck out nine batters and allowed only four hits to lift the Eagles past Pierce County 2-1 in game 2, and 2-0 overall in the state playoff series.
Unlike many of the teams in the state tournament, the Eagles have ridden their no. 1 pitcher Marvin through every single inning of play. Byrom said that his approach may be “old-school,” but he has confidence that Marvin has the strength to handle the large workload.
“Jessie is a strong-willed young lady who works her butt off and she wants the ball,” said Byrom. “The game has changed throughout the years. I guess I’m old school. When I started coaching fast-pitch back in 97’, when it came tournament time, you handed the ball to your no. 1 and said go win it. That may be the old school mentality, but if you’re throwing it fundamentally sound and are in good condition, it’s something you can do.”