THEY WENT to Columbus to win a championship but left with plenty to be proud of.
Faced with long-odds after an opening-day loss, the Jackson County Panthers (23-17-1) rallied with two wins out of the losers’ bracket and nearly won a third game before bowing out in the Final Four.
“We were definitely sad,” Jackson County softball coach Chessie Laird said. “We had worked so hard. At the same time that was the last time that our four seniors were going to be on the field …We were glad that we went out the way that we did.”
Following a 4-1 loss to Chapel Hill Thursday in the opening round of the Elite Eight, Jackson County had to win three times Friday to make it to the Saturday rounds. The Panthers were confident they could pull of that trifecta and nearly did.
“If anybody could play through the entire losers’ bracket and have the versatility, it would be us … We felt like if anybody could do it, we could do it,” Laird said.
The Panthers beat Jackson High School 3-2 and Pike County 2-1 to advance to an evening game with Ringgold, which they lost 3-2.
The team’s first victory — the 3-2 victory over Jackson High School — was something of a statement win after losing its opener to Chapel Hill a day earlier.
“That was important for us that we come out the next morning and win,” Laird said. “We didn’t want it to seem like it was a fluke that we were there.”
Jessica Baker threw seven innings for the win, allowing three hits, two runs (one earned) and no walks. She struck out two batters. Victoria Fontana had a hit and scored two runs.
Shelton Kendrix picked up an RBI. Mason Garland, Madi Pecht and Peyton Sorrells all had hits in the team’s 22nd win of the season.
Jackson County was able to play that game in the stadium at the South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus.
“That was something that was really fun,” Laird said.
The fun continued on into the next game.
Jackson County beat Pike County 2-1 behind a five-hitter from Kendrix, who allowed only one unearned run. She finished with one walk and two strikeouts.
Kendrix also went 1-for-3 with an RBI. Alyssa Dasher, Fontana, Pecht and Sorrells each had one hit as the Panthers improved to 23-16-1.
“That was awesome,” Laird said of the win. “I felt like we were rolling at the right time and our defense was outstanding and a lot of those defensive plays happened in the Pike County game."
The win advanced Jackson County into the Final Four, something that went unnoticed at the time by the Panthers, who were focused solely on advancing and surviving.
“I don’t think it occurred to us that we were in the final four,” Laird said.
Jackson County’s run in Columbus — and the team’s season — ended with the loss to a 32-win Ringgold team.
Garland led the team by going 2-for-3 at the plate and driving in both runs. Dasher, Jordan Evans, Fontana, Kendrix, Pecht and Peyton Sorrells each had a hit.
Laird didn’t think fatigue was a factor in the loss despite her team having played three games that day.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Most of these girls play all summer long and we were able to play all those tournaments at the beginning of the year.”
With a Region 8-AAA and Final Four finish in the books, this Panther softball team will go down as an overachieving group.
Jackson County moved up a classification this year and lost its top two pitchers and leading hitters from last year. Not only did the Panthers weather those losses, they came back even better.
“I think this year and last year, we had a good sense of team,” Laird said. “But this year, I felt our girls felt more like a family.”
In fact, Laird said team chemistry weighed heavily in this year’s success. She pointed out that several on the team have played together for years, which created that family feel. As a result, Jackson County was able to win without having a clear-cut star.
“We didn’t have a standout player, but at that point, this team didn’t need that … It didn’t come down to one person,” Laird said.
“This team had one goal and it was be successful no matter what,” Laird added.
Laird praised the leadership of the four seniors that the team will lose — Fontana, Andrea Ledford, Whitney Kendrix and Kristin Anderson.
At the same time, Laird doesn’t think the team will be rebuilding with the return of all-region players like Garland, Shelton Kendrix, Dasher and Sorrells.
“I think the sky is the limit with this group coming back,” Laird said.
Five Panthers make 8-AAA all-region softball team
FIVE MEMBERS of Jackson County’s Final Four softball team have been named All-Region 8-AAA.
Mason Garland (infield), Victoria Fontana (outfield) and Shelton Kendrix (catcher) were all first-team selections.
Alyssa Dasher (outfield) and Peyton Sorrells (infield) made the second team.