JACKSON COUNTY’S Chessie Laird probably had four or five games worth of different scenarios crammed into her head coaching debut Tuesday: a hot start, a blown five-run lead, a comeback and a photo finish at home plate in an 8-7 win over Jefferson.
A Victoria Fontana to Andrea Ledford to Madison Whitmire relay in the top of the seventh cut down a potential game-tying run at the plate, ending the game and preserving a wild win for the Panthers (1-0, 1-0) in their softball season-opener.
“It’s an amazing beginning,” said Laird, who coached the last three years at West Jackson Middle School. “At the same time, these girls have worked their tails off all summer long and you know they’ve really taken pride and taken stock in what we’re doing. I think as long as we do that, we’re going to be successful.”
Jefferson swept the series last year between these two rivals separated by only a couple of miles. Now Jackson County takes an early 1-0 lead in this season's series. Both teams move on to play in the Hawk-Bulldog Invitational this week at West Jackson Park.
The start of the game gave no indication of the roller coaster evening ahead. Jackson County piled up five runs in the first inning to take command early, and Laird said her team was certainly ready to play.
“They’ve been ready for this for a while,” Laird said. “I think since last year. That’s been in the back of their minds. So that’s one thing — we just wanted to get off to a good start.”
Jefferson (2-4, 0-1), however, rallied for seven unanswered runs over the course of the third and fourth innings, including six scores in the fourth.
But the pivotal fifth inning proved to be the difference.
Jackson County freshman Alyssa Dasher tripled home both Madison Whitmire and Mason Garland to tie the game at seven and breathe new life into the Panthers.
“It was amazing and really kind of put the wind back in our sails for the girls to just climb back on it and really go for it,” Laird said of Dasher’s huge hit.
Dasher then scored from third off an error at home plate to put Panthers up by one, setting up the final inning fireworks.
With Tristan McGarity on first in the top of the seventh, Paige Pate’s two-out single got past the Panther outfield. With the ball rolling deep into right field, McGarity rounded second and third and went for home. But Whitmire got the ball off the relay from the outfield and applied the tag to the sliding McGarity for the dramatic final out.
Laird praised her team’s mental toughness to overcome letting a five-run lead get away, crediting the Panther seniors.
“We have a great, great sense of senior leadership — Macey Latty, Haley Shinall, Ashleigh Lance, everybody, Kelsey Turner and even Drake Vissering in the dugout,” Laird said. “Everybody, they’ve just kind of taken this team on their shoulders trying to keep everything as positive as possible.”
Jefferson coach Melissa Mullis, back as Dragon head coach following a four-year hiatus, said one of the team’s goals was to “shut it down in the first inning.” Instead, Jackson County got off to a blistering start.
“It’s a weakness of ours, and we didn’t reach that goal and that’s why we lost,” Mullis said. “So if we hadn’t had that inning, we would have won. That’s something we’ve got to continue to work on.”
Still, Mullis gave lots of credit to Jackson County.
“Jackson County has a great ball club,” she said. “They’re coached well, they played well. They’d only made, I think, one error.”
Mullis said there was no sense in arguing the final call at the plate but thought McGarity was safe.
“I told my girls that I’m 100 percent proud of them because they fought to the end,” Mullis said. “And I felt like we scored, and so you can’t do anything about it.”
Dasher led Jackson County at the plate, going 2-for-3 and driving home both her runs with her dramatic fifth-inning hit. Whitmire, who tripled to start the fifth inning, went 2-for-3 as well. Mason Garland was 1-for-3 with two RBIs. Andrea Ledford (2-for-3), Haley Shinall and Ashleigh Lance also had one RBI each.
Shinall threw seven innings for the win, giving up nine hits, four earned runs and five walks while striking out five.
Jordyn Whitfield led Jefferson offensively, going 2-for-4 with two RBIs. Meagan Faulkner went 2-for-4 with one RBI. Lindsey Miles was 1-for-3 with two RBIs. Ashley Boyd, who went 1-for-4, also drove home a run.
Laird noted the electric atmosphere for the season opener.
“The fan support — just having everyone here — this place was packed,” Laird said. “That was awesome. It’s a much different atmosphere than middle school.”
With an exciting round one going to Jackson County, it will set up an interesting rematch. The teams are scheduled to play again Sept. 8.
“We applaud them,” Mullis said. “But we can’t wait to play them again because that will make us better.”