By Jonathan Pleasant
The Lady Longhorns competed in one of the toughest and best-known regional softball tournaments this past weekend in Kingsport. Founded in 1997, the Kingsport/Eastman Fastpitch Softball Tournament has steadily grown in reputation to the point that it now brings in teams from all over the state who work hard to earn an elusive spot in the final 16.
Only the top two slots in each of the events eight divisions move on to play in the championship tournament held on Sunday. With 44 teams in all, making it that far can be a big obstacle, but as head coach Dana Smith pointed out, the rewards are impressive. If you are a top 16 team you get scholarships, Smith said. The teams that win get a certain amount of money and then decide what to do with it. Even if you get beat in the first round, it could be anywhere from $250 to $500 depending on how much scholarship money they have. In the past it has been $250 for the teams that go out first. So, if they have a player or two players that have signed they split that money up among them, or they may choose to divide it among all the seniors. It doesnt matter how it is used.
Typically the first day of the tournament opens with pool play that doesnt actually count toward the championship standings but does give an opportunity to get some time on the field. Johnson County was intended to play against Cherokee and David Crockett, but with a soggy field Thursday, the pool play games were cancelled. As a result, the Lady Longhorns didnt get on the field at Domtar Park until Friday, opening up against the Cocke County Lady Reds.
That first round went really well, with a strong defensive showing, led by pitcher Hope Nelson, holding back the score until the Longhorns began making contact late in the game. We felt like were going to go in a hole there for a second but we came back and it feels pretty good, Nelson said. Everybody just worked together and we all did really well. We havent had the best weather lately, so we spend a lot of time in the hitting tunnel and we go through stations. We just focus on our hitting and keeping our head down and swinging all the way through the ball. When we do go in the tunnel I try to get all my stations done first so that I can pitch while everyone else is hitting. Mostly I try to focus on the next pitch Im going to throw. I feel like I have my team behind me and I have to do a really good job for them. I know that if I dont, theyre going to be there to back me up, but I just try for them and let them strengthen me.
Ashley Arnold got the Lady Longhorns off to a good start, taking base in her first at-bat, and then gaining opportunities to advance from Abby Reece and Linnea Yongue, before eventually taking home. Unfortunately, the next two innings were all quick outs, made even more stressful by a successful Cocke County run thanks to a triple in the third inning.
Fortunately, as Smith pointed out things were quick to turn around in the 4th.
I was waiting on them to wake up and start hitting, Smith said. They were a little uptight. That bothers them a little bit. When theyre not hitting they think too much. Every time they come up to bat they know they have an opportunity to get a hit, but all games are mental. I was pleased with this effort. Defensively they did their job, and I dont really have any bad things to say about it.
Beginning with a double by freshman Kelsey Duperry early in the fourth, Johnson County was able to gain some momentum that eventually turned into a four run streak in the fifth inning. Ashley Arnold got her second run of the night, as well as an RBI, along with additional runs by Hope Nelson, Abby Reece, Kelsey Duperry, and Brianna Snyder. Timed because of tournament rules, this big end of game shift allowed Johnson County to walk away victorious 7-3.
Johnson County 7, Cocke County 3
The Lady Longhorns second opponent of the night, Kingston, was also one of the toughest in their division, forcing Johnson County to play a very serious defensive game. The first inning was largely a draw, with Hope Nelson taking first base and advancing to second, but cut short before she could get in a run. Likewise, Kingston had a runner advance to third, but a strong showing by pitcher Brianna Snyder shut down their batters as well.
The momentum shifted against the Lady Longhorns in the second, with the only base action coming from a walk on Brianna Snyder while Kingston put two runners all the way through with another on third. Now behind 2-0, Johnson County tried once again to get on track offensively and almost succeeded. Having received two early outs, the Lady Horns managed to load the bases, with Nelson on third, Jayme Jennings on second, and Linnea Yongue on first. A strikeout against Duperry ended the inning, but still left enough time to turn the game around.
Kingston was able to get one more run in the third, while the Lady Longhorns simply could not get back on base until the fifth. Once again the bases loaded up, but following a third out on a fly ball into right field, Johnson County had to settle with their first loss of the tournament.
Despite that fact, Smith was still proud of her teams efforts. I was really happy with last night because we played very well, said the coach. We made plays when we needed to make them. We put pressure on their defense, our pitching was good, but you have to win three out of four to move on.
Johnson County 0, Kingston 3
Coming back on Saturday, the girls were hoping to pull out two last wins and get the chance to play at least one round in the championships. Yet, even after playing a white-knuckle game against one of the best teams in the district, Johnson County faltered when they came up against North Greene. According to Smith, We just didnt play well for some unknown reason. We had four hits and they had six and the score was 1-6. We just did strange things. It was not something Im used to. Our pitching was good. They hit their spots and everything else but our defense didnt back them up. I had Hope and then I put Brianna in and it was only to see if I could get something to change. Theyre doing their part. Were just not doing our part with the bat.
Playing North Greene, the Lady Longhorns could not get a solid hit until the sixth inning. With numerous strikeouts and catches in the infield, Johnson County simply could not keep up with their opponent in their third round. North Greene got their first two runs off defensive errors in the third inning, and it wasnt long before they had two more in the fourth, once again off errors. A couple more first base hits in the fifth sealed their win, and the Lady Longhorns were faced with the grim reality that they could no longer expect to play on Sunday.
Weve talked about it and they talked about it and well see if we can put it behind us and go on from where we are, Smith said. You have to be in the top two of your bracket, which we will now not be, to go on and play Sunday. This will be our last game and we already know that. We should have won that game and that would have put a different light on this last game. We could have played Sunday but thats just the way it is. Everybody is here. All of the teams are here playing somewhere. I wanted to play Sunday. I wanted to be in the money round for our girls and it just didnt happen.
Johnson County 1, North Greene 6
The final round was against the Daniel Boone Trailblazers, but after the demoralizing loss against North Greene earlier in the day, there was little spirit left in the Lady Longhorns to fight. Ashley Arnold managed to score one of the teams two runs, with the other coming off a big homerun by Jayme Jennings, but in the same amount of time the Lady Trailblazers had put in nine of their own.
Despite a disappointing ending, just getting the opportunity to play in the Eastman tournament and winning their first round was a huge benefit for Johnson County. With poor weather conditions plaguing the early spring, any opportunity to get on the field is essential. Fortunately, even with a very young team made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores, the Lady Longhorns were still able to hold their own. Even in the games they lost the team was able to turn some heads and gain some much deserved attention, making the weekend well worth the effort.
Johnson County 2, Daniel Boone 9