Etowah 1 0 3 1 0 0 0 — 5
Lambert 1 0 0 0 2 0 0 — 3
Maddie Billings (Etowah) — 7 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 9 K
Marissa Guimbarda (Lambert) — 7 IP, 8 H, 5 R (3 ER), 1 K
Skylar Wallace — 1-2, 2 R, 2 BB, 2 SB
Payton Curtis — 2-3, R, RBI
Zoe Miller — 1-2, R, 2B, BB
Macy Stovall — 1-4, 2B, RBI
Lambert 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 — 4
Etowah 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 — 3
Billings (Etowah) — 7 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 K
Kassidy Krupit (Lambert) — 7 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 K
Savannah Huffstetler — 2-4, HR, RBI, 2 R
Stovall — 1-3, R, HBP
Miller — 1-2, R, BB
Shelby Dean — 1-3, RBI
Wallace — 2-3, 3B, R
Emma Erwin — 1-3, HR, RBI
[Correction: Etowah third baseman Hannah McGraw hit Huffstetler with her throw during a third inning rundown, not shortstop Payton Curtis, as previously reported.]
A human head is a small target to aim for, even from 15 feet away, but Etowah third baseman Hannah McGraw’s game of target practice with the back of Savannah Huffstetler’s batting helmet helped Lambert softball stay alive in the state playoffs.
The Lady Longhorns fell to Region 5-AAAAAA No. 4 seed Etowah, 5-3, in Game 1 of its first round series. Lambert found itself tied 2-2 with the Lady Eagles in a must-win Game 2.
Huffstetler stood at third base with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the third when Lambert coach Brooks Youngblood called for a squeeze bunt. His signal went ignored, and so Huffstetler was caught out halfway down the third base line before throwing the brakes on. Etowah catcher Skylar Wallace sprinted out of her crouch and threw to third.
Two direction changes later, Huffstetler looked dead to rights — that is, until McGraw’s throw found the back of Huffstetler’s matte black helmet, bouncing to the backstop and allowing two runs to score. Lambert would make that score hold up in a 4-3 Game 2 victory that forced a deciding Game 3 on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
“That was certainly not how we drew it up,” Youngblood said, resigned to laughter. “Savannah did what she had to do and stayed alive long enough where they had to throw it around, and Macy did a great job of reading the play and going full-speed around third. Everybody follows what those two do.”
Despite starting four freshmen — pitcher Maddie Billings, Wallace, McGraw and left fielder Brooke VonSeeger — it was Etowah who appeared more composed in Game 1.
The Lady Eagles jumped out to a 1-0 lead after three batters when Wallace, the leadoff hitter, singled, stole second and scored on a fielder’s choice. Huffstetler got that run back in the bottom of the frame by walking, stealing second, advancing to third on a wild pitch and scoring on another wild pitch.
Lambert made uncharacteristic defensive mistakes in the third as Etowah pushed across three runs. Payton Curtis drove home Wallace with a single to center and advanced to second when the throw home went to the backstop. Emma Erwin plated Curtis with a single and Teresa Barry doubled to center; Huffstetler’s relay throw was in time but Erwin’s slide knocked the ball out of catcher Macy Stovall’s glove.
“Early in Game 1, our nerves were there a little bit,” Youngblood said. “They put the pressure on us and made us throw the ball around a little bit. We failed to do what we usually do. That’ll happen in high-pressure games.”
That type of inning was business as usual for Etowah.
“We produce runs by doing the basics: getting on base, bunting, stealing bases, getting the timely hit; that’s who we are,” Lady Eagles coach Victoria Brown said. “We’ve made it this far, so no use trying to change what we do.”
Lambert scored two in the fifth inning of Game 1 on Macy Stovall’s RBI double and Marissa Guimbarda’s RBI single, but Stovall and Guimbarda were stranded on second and third as a chance to tie went begging. The Lady Longhorns went quietly in the final two innings of the opening game.
“Offensively, it was kind of a cold night for us,” Youngblood said. “We were telling the girls before the second game, if you look at most of the bad at-bats we had, it was because we were chasing fastballs up out of the strike zone, or off-speed stuff down out of the zone … Any time you help a pitcher out by swinging at their pitches, you feed in to her being able to live outside of the strike zone.”
Against Billings, a freshman pitcher who struggled for most of the night with her command, Lambert was, for the most part, over-aggressive at the plate. Billings walked four but struck out nine in the first game.
“[Billings] has a ton of maturity,” Brown said. “She wants the ball. She’s a gamer. Whether that’s on the mound or at third base, she’ll fight wherever we put her.”
Marissa Guimbarda worked all seven innings of Game 1 — not Youngblood’s plan — but wasn’t quite her usual self. The sophomore gave up eight hits and five runs (three earned), striking out just one. Guimbarda settled down after the three-run third and allowed just three hits and one run over the final four frames.
With Lambert on its heels after a surprising opening-game loss, Huffstetler calmed a few nerves just four pitches in to Game 2 by jumping on an 0-2 offering from Billings for a solo home run, and, finally, a lead.
Etowah quickly tied the game up when Wallace led off the bottom of the first with a towering triple in to the right field corner and scored on Curtis’ bunt single. In two games, Wallace went 3-for-5 with a triple, three runs scored and two walks.
“I didn’t know how to pitch her,” Youngblood said. “I thought maybe we’ll try a changeup, or we’ll try a rise-ball, but she hit everything we threw at her.”
Shelby Dean tied Game 2 at two apiece in the second inning with a single to right field that scored Zoe Miller. Huffstetler and Stovall gave Lambert a 4-2 lead with the wacky (in other words, lucky) rundown play, which would be just enough. Erwin led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run that cleared the scoreboard in left-center field, but Kassidy Krupit got two groundouts and a strikeout to end it.
“Both of those games were within two runs, which is what you expect in the playoffs,” Youngblood said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all tomorrow to see another two-run ballgame.”
Youngblood and Brown both were unsure who would start on the mound for Thursday’s Game 3. Billings worked all 14 innings Wednesday night; Krupit — also a freshman — looked the sharper of Lambert’s pitching tandem. It will be a game time decision tomorrow on both sides.
“Marissa’s my No. 1, so if she comes out hot tomorrow, she can dominate,” Youngblood said. “If not, it’s an elimination game. You do whatever you need to do.”