By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
OXFORD – Sports seasons are special for all sorts of reasons, but the one the Spring Garden Lady Panthers just had in softball is one they won’t soon forget.
After losing six seniors from the previous year, this year’s Lady Panther squad might not have been expected to make it to this year’s state tournament in Oxford.
But after drawing inspiration from head coach Ann Welsh’s battle with breast cancer, the Lady Panthers worked themselves right back in the mix once again.
Their season ended on the final day of Class 1A play Wednesday against eighth-ranked Maplesville at Oxford Lake 5-2, but just like all season, they didn’t go down without a fight.
Trailing 4-0 after three innings, Spring Garden manufactured a run in the top of the fourth. Senior right fielder Kayley Kirk led off with a double to center. She advanced to third on a single to center by Helena Ingram, then scored with one out on a Maggie Jarrett’s single to left.
Maplesville loaded the bases and battled back with a run in the bottom of the fifth, but pitcher Avery Steward got of the jam with a double play to end the inning.
Then, Lilly McCain blasted a solo home run to left center in the top of the sixth to stay within striking distance. After Steward retired the Maplesville side in order in the bottom half of the sixth, she singled to center with one out, and Ingram singled to left with two outs to bring McCain back up to the plate with the tying run. Maplesville pitcher M.K. Smith struck McCain out to end the game.
“They just have lots of grit about them. They don’t give up,” Spring Garden coach Stephanie Steward said. “There’s really nothing negative to say. We should be proud of the season we had, to say that we made it this far. I think this team accomplished a lot this season. I’m super proud of them.”
An emotional Welsh added she is proud of the Lady Panthers as well.
“It’s tough for me, I’m not going to lie, but I do appreciate them being behind me and just playing hard,” she said. “I hope they saw that I fight hard and I wanted the same for them.”
The Lady Panthers finished the season at 21-17 with Steward at the helm and Welsh in the dugout when she felt up to it after her treatments.
“You know she’s not feeling good and she comes to the games. She’s there. How can anybody complain?,” Steward said. “When somebody got hurt, they were like ‘No, I’m playing. I’m good.’ Layla (Ingram) got hurt and came back. Madi (Ham) dove for a ball in regionals and her wrist is hurt. Olivia (Law’s) finger is hurt. Avery’s hand was hurt. There were several coaches who said to us ‘Not every kid is like that.’ They’re all in. They’re team players for sure.”
Jarrett and Helena Ingram led the Lady Panthers at the plate with a pair of hits apiece. McCain, Avery Steward, Kirk, Ham and Maggie Reedy each finished with a hit.
“They just have that fight about them. Their emotions don’t get the best of them. They keep their heads on. As a coach you really can’t ask for anything else,” Coach Steward said. “They just play hard and want to do well. They’re a fun group.”
Avery Steward suffered the loss after allowing six hits – all to the Lady Red Devils’ 1 through 3 hitters. She also walked three and struck out four.
Jaden McGee was a perfect 3-for-3 at the plate for Maplesville with a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning. Smith was 2-for-3 with two-run double in the third. Leadoff batter Kamylia Talley tallied a hit and a walk.
Smith earned the win after scattering nine hits with a pair of strikeouts.
The game marked the final one for Kirk, Ham and Timmi Scogin.
“This senior class was team players. Whatever the team needed they were willing to do that,” Coach Steward said. “Timmi has played at first (base) this year. This is the first year she’s been a starter on the field. You couldn’t ask for a better teammate or a team player. She does anything and everything we ever ask her to with a great attitude.
“Madi, it was her first year with us, and she helped us tremendously out in left field. She hit the ball well in this tournament.
“You can’t say enough about Kayley at the plate. She had a great tournament. I told her that was the best catch she’s made in right field (on Wednesday in the sixth inning). I could see it on her face. She was coming in and wanted to catch that ball. She was at third last year and we had her at third at the beginning of the season. We decided she’d help us out more in right field. We needed to shore up our defense. Without hesitation, she said I’ll do what the team needs me to do. She was very willing to move to right field. She never had anything negative (to say).”
Both Spring Garden coaches feel the Lady Panthers’ softball future is bright.
“Those girls, I’ve watched them play since they were little, and now I’m looking forward to sitting in the outfield and watching them this summer (in travel ball),” Coach Steward said. “I know how much work they’ve put in since they were little. They play together. They’re all going to play together this summer. That’s just why as a high school program we can have the success we do. It’s because of the work their dads put in and what they put in the off-season. It’s exciting having them coming back. They’re a special group.
“They expect us to win. That’s their mindset, whatever sport we’re playing. They just expect to win.”
Added Welsh: “If you look at our first game compared to our last game, there’s a tremendous difference. That shows a lot of hard work and heart.”