This season, as Lambert softball head coach Brooks Youngblood would later say, had been “tough” on the Lady Longhorns. They’d endured almost all manner of adversity: injuries, losing streaks, Youngblood’s brief absence for the birth of his daughter. Still, they’d survived, finishing runner-up in the region with a late-season spurt to host a state playoff series for the third straight year.
But on Wednesday, Mill Creek was too tough for Lambert to overcome in 4-2 and 6-0 losses at home in the first round of the Class AAAAAA playoffs. The Lady Hawks advanced to face the Alcovy-Westlake winner in next week’s second round. Lambert ended its season at 15-12.
Mill Creek (21-8) played with a crispness the Lady Longhorns could not match. The Lady Hawks out-hit Lambert, made fewer errors, and when Mill Creek had the series within its grasp junior pitcher Skylar Hayward clenched it tight with a masterful Game 2 performance.
“I feel like we were pretty evenly matched teams,” Youngblood said, “but they were the better team tonight. Their pitcher was great. I thought their defense was phenomenal. They made some plays that were just ridiculous. Those are the kinds of things you need.”
Even good teams need a few breaks, too, and Mill Creek seemed to get a pivotal one in the top of the fifth inning of Game 1. Lambert trailed 2-1 at that point with junior Marissa Guimbarda in the circle. Mill Creek had runners on first and third with two outs. One more out, and Lambert could take another crack at Hayward down just one run.
Instead, as Guimbarda went into her wind-up for a pitch, she stopped with her glove at its highest point and stepped off the rubber. After some delay, the umpires called Guimbarda for an illegal pitch, allowing each runner to advance one base. The runner from third trotted home. Mill Creek’s Kaylyn Anthony followed with an RBI single. Mill Creek suddenly led 4-1.
“Those are the breaks of the game,” Youngblood said.
Lambert got no such breaks from Hayward in Game 2. She was swift to the plate, bearing down on Lady Longhorn hitters with a fastball that seemed to pop louder and louder as the night went on.
After the second inning, Lambert’s best efforts appeared futile. Lady Longhorns senior Maddie Butz drew a walk to lead off the game but was stranded at second. Rachel Cowart drew a two-out walk the next inning, then moved to second on a single by Ansley Dean, but Hayward got Catie Rose Hays to ground out to shortstop to end the threat.
Hays’ groundout was the first of 14 straight Hayward retired, a streak Shelby Dean finally ended with a one-out single in the top of the seventh inning. No matter. Hayward struck out Katlin Holloway and Cowart to end the game and series. Hayward allowed just two hits and walked two in seven shutout innings while striking out seven.
“That was one of the toughest years I can remember, as far as injuries and not having depth,” Youngblood said. “But I think these girls battled through it, and I think they’re going to be better for it.”