In what will go down as the best high school series in Marion County softball history, the Columbia Lady Wildcats swept the West Marion Lady Trojans in a pair of extremely close, competitive games to claim the Region 8-3A title.
After Columbia (19-1, 6-0) built an 8-1 lead in Game 1 at home Tuesday, previously undefeated West Marion (11-2, 4-2) stormed back to tie the game 8-8 in the top of the sixth inning, only for the Lady Wildcats to answer with a run in the bottom half and hold on for a 9-8 victory. In Game 2 at West Marion Wednesday with the contest tied 2-2 in the sixth inning, Columbia broke through for three runs and held on late for a 5-3 win. With both teams unbeaten in district entering the series, the winner claimed the district title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
“It’s one of the goals we set at the beginning of the year, and the girls achieved it,” CHS head coach Greg Arnold said on winning the district championship. “It’s a great feeling, and I’m proud of their accomplishments for all the work they’ve put in this year.”
Arnold said the biggest difference in the series was the way Columbia responded to adversity. He referenced the first inning of Game 2 when Meagan Arnold misjudged a popup in the infield and the Lady Trojans then loaded the bases with just one out. Meagan Arnold made up for it, though, catching a short popup and having the awareness to tag the runner from first base before she tagged up for a double play that let the Lady Wildcats escape a potentially dangerous jam.
“Kacey (Stampley) pitched really well. We had that bad inning in the third inning when we had a costly error that let in a couple of runs, but we settled in after that and Kacey went to work,” he said. “She had seven (strikeouts) after that.”
He added with the bottom of the order producing at the dish and the defense playing well behind Stampley’s stellar pitching, it was a team effort, and that’s what the Lady Wildcats will need in the postseason to make history in the coming weeks.
West Marion head coach Mike McMullin said he has nothing but pride for the Lady Trojans for the way they played and fought and added he is extremely proud of Olivia Miller battling in the circle for all seven innings on back-to-back nights.
“I told the girls after the game it was two good teams playing, two good ball games,” he said. “We had chances to win in both games I thought. I think it’s going to help us because I don’t think any situation that we face from now on will be bigger. They should be able to handle any situation they need to handle. It’s not going to get too big for them. It’s not going to take the hurt from the losses away, but I think it’s going to help us down the road.”
What hurt the Lady Trojans the most was themselves, particularly in Game 2. Three of Columbia’s five runs can be traced back to crucial errors, while the other two stemmed from a walk issued and a bit batter.
“We always talk about not giving them extra outs, and if you give them extra outs, that usually means more runs. The error parts, we’ve been playing pretty good defense, but we just have to make plays,” McMullin said. “When you don’t make errors, the less bad things can happen. Columbia took advantage of it.”
He added throughout the series West Marion hit the ball well, pitched well and was solid defensively for the most part, and errors are oftentimes part of the equation in a pressure-packed game with both teams playing hard.
As remarkable as the games were for their action, the intensity and support from the community were on par.
“The atmosphere was just so great,” McMullin said. “I’ve been here a long time, between over at Columbia and over here, that’s the two biggest crowds I’ve seen for a softball game.”
In Game 1, Columbia managed to score three first-inning runs with only one hit — an RBI single by Madelyn Williamson to take the early lead, which followed West Marion plating the first run of the game on an RBI double by Paris Thompson.
The Lady Wildcats added five runs in the fourth inning with Jalaysia Everett walking, Leah Nolan singling, Stampley doubling, Madelyn Williamson singling, Marlee Williamson getting hit by a pitch and Kaylee Stringer singling before West Marion recorded three straight outs.
Thompson played a key role in the Lady Trojans storming back, plating runs in both the fifth and sixth innings with a single and a double, respectively, to go along with a run-scoring single by Sara Morgan. Columbia took the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth with Jessica Baker drawing a bases-loaded walk in a full count.
Game 2 was just as intense with Columbia striking first in the second inning. Marlee Williamson reached base on a dropped popup in the infield, stole second, advanced to third on a grounder and scored on a wild pitch.
West Marion answered in the bottom of third to take the lead though. Miller led off with a triple and scored on what would have been a sacrifice fly for Gracyn Odom, but the fly ball was dropped, scoring Miller and allowing Odom to reach second. Then Thompson roped an RBI double to left field that made it 2-1.
In the top of the fifth, the Lady Wildcats knotted the game at 2-2 as Everett laid down a bunt, and the throw to first went into right field. Everett took off for second, prompting a throw from West Marion right fielder Makayla Morgan and allowing the runner on first to score. In the bottom half of the inning, Nolan made back-to-back web gems — snaring a hard-hit liner by Miller and sliding to get a tough grounder off the bat of Odom — to retire two of West Marion’s best hitters.
Marlee Williamson was hit by a pitch to lead off the top of the sixth, then Baker reached on essentially a swinging bunt. Columbia then loaded the bases with no outs with a bunt as West Marion tried to get a force out at third base, but Marlee Williamson was safe. Mia Miciello gave the Lady Wildcats a 3-2 lead after fouling a tough pitch with a full count then drawing a run-scoring walk. After Everett and Nolan were struck out by Miller, Stampley got a grounder through the right side of the infield to get two runs in. Stampley was thrown out at second at nearly the same time the second runner crossed home, but the umpire ruled she crossed before Stampley got out. The hit extended Stampley’s hit streak to 26 games, which spans back to the first game of her junior season.
With their last chance to answer the bottom of the seventh inning, West Marion refused to go out quietly. Miller singled and stole second then scored on an Odom infield single. Arnold opted to intentionally walk Thompson, who was consistent in delivering at the plate for the Lady Trojans throughout the series, which paid off big. Stampley got Kirsten Williams, who was filling in for an injured Sara Morgan, to pop out to record the second out. Then Samaria Pittman ripped a sharp groundball between short and third, but Nolan made a great play ranging to her right and getting the force out at third to end the game.
Nolan may have struggled at the dish in Game 2, going 0-for-4, but she deserves the game ball for her defense, which potentially saved multiple runs.
“When a player struggles at the plate and doesn’t feel like they’re contributing, to be able to flush the at-bats out and stay focused defensively and produce for your team like Leah did, that says a lot about her work ethic, what she does defensively and how it helps our team. Some players can get down on themselves, but for her to fight through that and have a great defensive game, that’s great,” Arnold said. “At the end for her to have the wherewithal to know we have a force play to end the game (is impressive). It was a good play in that five-six hole that clinched a championship.”