Lady Raiders win first state championship
Published 9:53 am Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Coaches Jeb Bradshaw and Scott Speight are quite familiar with this situation.
One year less a day after their top-seeded Southampton Academy Lady Raiders lost in extra innings to then three-time defending champion Kenston Forest in the Virginia Independent School Athletic Association Division III State Championship Game, the coaches looked into the opposite dugout to see their Virginia Commonwealth Conference rival once again.
In fact, this marked the third-consecutive season in which the two teams met for the right to be crowned state champions. And seeing that the teams played twice this year — with the Kavaliers dealing the Lady Raiders one of their two losses on the season — nobody outside of Southampton County seemed be giving the higher-seeded team a shot at winning the school’s first state softball title.
But armed with flame-throwing pitcher Brooke Mizelle, her minuscule earned run average and an offense capable of scoring 10-plus runs on any given day, the coaches were sure that this time would be different.
“We both had all the confidence in the world in this team. We knew all it would take was to keep the girls calm and not let playing on a big stage affect their nerves,” Speight said. “In our pregame huddle, I had just two sentences: ‘Play our ball, and most importantly, have fun.’”
That’s just what they did, as Mizelle, who allowed two quick runs in last year’s championship game, trotted out to the mound in the top of the first and picked up the yellow ball as her infield teammates spun through their pre-inning routine. She took a deep breath and then mowed through the top of the Kavaliers’ lineup with ease to end all comparisons of past defeats.
Instead, it was the Lady Raiders who jumped out to an early lead when Mizelle helped her own cause with an RBI double off of Kenston Forest’s Machaela Gunn. Shortstop Ashten Hinkle, who led off the inning with a shot through her counterpart’s legs, raced from first to give Southampton Academy a 1-0 lead.
The scoring would halt until the fourth frame, when an error allowed the Lady Raiders to tack on another run. A single from center fielder Mason Pope was followed by a hot shot to third by Kelly Ferguson, but the third baseman was unable to field the ball cleanly and threw it away on the subsequent throw to first. Pope scored to give Southampton a two-run lead as Ferguson slid into third base. She would remain 60-feet away, however, as Gunn was able to induce two-consecutive pop fly outs to escape without further damage.
Meanwhile, Mizelle was perfect through four. The Salisbury University commit weaved through the Kenston Forest lineup, striking out three. But it was the second time through the order when the Kavaliers were able to catch up to her pitch speed. Gunn opened the inning with a seeing-eye single, and third baseman Lydia Wrenn’s sacrifice bunt turned into an infield hit. A sacrifice bunt pushed runners over to second and third for right fielder Ashlee Stanley, who stuck out attempting a suicide squeeze. After a lengthy 10-pitch battle, Mizelle escaped the inning unharmed when center fielder Skyler Foley hit a comebacker to the mound.
Asked if he was sweating a bit during the exchange, Speight responded with a laugh.
“Yeah,” he said, as he removed his cap and combed through his hair.
His raised blood pressure was for naught, though, when Southampton Academy added some breathing room in bottom of the fourth. With a runner on first, Hinkle took Gunn deep into the right center field gap for a stand-up RBI triple to give the designated home team a 3-0 lead. An RBI single from Mason Pope pushed the lead to four before Gunn sat down the next two batters.
The Kavaliers put pressure on Mizelle once again in the top of the sixth inning, as two-consecutive base hits placed runners on second and third. With two on and one out, Wrenn hit a low line drive to third baseman Allison Matthews, but the sophomore was unable to make the catch and allowed the runners to advance and a run to score.
In the dugout, Bradshaw and Speight began to discuss whether they should replace Mizelle on the mound, as the Kavaliers were able to take advantage of her tiring arm in the extra frame of their previous state championship meeting. Ultimately, they stuck it out and watched Mizelle retire the final two batters of the inning.
“Brooke gave us our best shot because she was the one who pitched in the last two (state championship) losses. She was focused and relaxed and determined to not let it happen again,” Speight said. “This was by far the best I’ve seen her pitch. She had five innings of no-hit ball in this game, and that’s not easily accomplished against Kenston.”
The Lady Raiders were unable to extend the lead in the sixth, and as the game shifted toward the final frame, emotion began to show on the faces of the coaching staff.
Mizelle forced two easy outs and turned toward the scoreboard beyond the center field wall to reflect upon her stellar pitching performance in the last game of her high school career; she struck out five batters and scattered five hits against the three-time defending state champions to lower her ERA to 1.10. Seeing the 4-1 advantage, Mizelle toed the rubber, fired a strike and watched as her teammates capped their championship run with a put out at first.
Fists raised in the air, it was mere seconds before Mizelle was under a pile of teammates, celebrating what they thought was unattainable after their 1-2 start. Tears of joy ran down the face of Speight as he hugged his daughter, Chelsea, a former Lady Raider.
“Last year, we swept Kenston in the regular season, only to lose to them in the conference championship and state championship game. [The loss earlier this season] was a wake-up call for us. We knew we had to play better on both sides of the ball in order to achieve our ultimate goal,” Speight said. “The girls bought in to what we were coaching, and that made our practices and our games a lot of fun.”
Although the team will lose Mizelle — the division’s most valuable player — and catcher August Ringer — who garnered second team all-state honors — to graduation, Speight and Bradshaw may be in the same position next year.
The team has one rising senior, first team all-state shortstop Ashten Hinkle, and a host of juniors and sophomores just as capable as those who starred on this year’s squad, including first team all-state center fielder Mason Pope, second team all-state second basemen Kelly Ferguson and second team all-state third baseman Allison Matthews.
Asked what he thought of his team’s chances of repeating with a roster that seems loaded for years to come, Speight said, “One at a time.”
He’d just like to enjoy this one.