By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
GOOD HOPE —
Good Hope certainly didn’t play perfect in Wednesday’s area championship. With ace Cara Goodwin buckling down after a rocky first inning and Kayla Tillman slugging a two-run homer in the seventh, though, it didn’t have to.
The No. 2 Raiders did just enough to hold off a determined Vinemont squad for a 4-1 victory, clinching the Class 3A, Area 11 championship and a top seed at next week’s North Central Regional Tournament. The Eagles will also make the long trek to Tuscaloosa after advancing as the area runner-up.
“We had a rocky start,” Good Hope (36-7) coach Wayne Harris said. “We beat them last night, then we had to sit and wait, but they responded, got rid of all the snakes in their head and got it right.
“They beat a good team. I’ve always said Vinemont is a scrappy, determined bunch, and they showed it today.”
One day after setting the state record for perfect games in a season, Goodwin’s chances to add an eighth were squashed in a hurry. Kendra Pearson and Kiersten Simmons led off the bottom of the first with back-to-back singles, and Katie Speer beat out the throw on a grounder to third, setting up a lackadaisical defensive sequence that ended with Simmons sneaking home for the Eagles’ lone score.
From then on, Goodwin was a girl on a mission, not allowing another hit and striking out nine in her latest complete-game effort. The All-American, who hurled a perfect game and shutout on Tuesday, was named the tournament MVP.
Vinemont pitcher Raven Christensen was every bit as dominant as her counterpart for much of Wednesday’s title tilt, keeping the Raider bats quiet early with five strikeouts through three innings. The tide turned in the fourth, however, with a towering bases-loaded single off the fence by Savannah Fendley that evened the score. Alannah Henke then gave Good Hope all it’d need on the ensuing at-bat, coming across to score the go-ahead run on a ball in the dirt.
“They have played much better the last week and a half or so,” coach Mark Smothers said of his Eagles. “We’ve won some close ballgames and stayed in them, like that one right there where we stayed in it and fought. A couple bad breaks went the wrong way, and it made a difference in the game.”
After battling through kidney stones on the first day of the tourney and still reeling well into the second, Tillman was due for something positive to go her way. To the senior, there was no better cure than blasting a two-run bomb in her very last at-bat on the field she’s spent her entire prep softball career.
“That’s so awesome,” a beaming Tillman said shortly after the team received its area championship plaque. “To be honest, I just wanted to hit it as hard as I could because I was just really mad. I felt like I played terrible the whole game before that.”
Added Harris of the multi-sport star battling through the pain: “That’s part of it. Competitors want to play. She hit the ball hard her first two times, then finally she hit the ball where they couldn’t get to it.”
Goodwin finished with two hits, while Henke and Maegan Sterling both reached on bunt singles during the Raiders’ two-run fourth.
Good Hope, which scratched and clawed through the consolation bracket to win the North Regional title in Huntsville last year, will now try to tack on a North Central Regional championship May 10-11 in Tuscaloosa. A second-straight trip to state is the Raiders’ obvious goal, but Tillman doesn’t want to look too far down the road just yet
“This year, we’re just ready. We want to win,” the slugger said. “We want to not only get back to state, but we want to win state. We have to get through regionals first, though.”
% Vinemont 2, Danville 1: The Eagles punched their ticket to Tuscaloosa despite a rough first inning of their own, rebounding with six innings of inspired softball to walk away with a semifinal triumph.
Pearson had her hand in both of Vinemont’s runs, beginning the fourth inning with a single, advancing to third on a sacrifice bunt and scoring on a sac fly to right field by Katie Fuller to tie the score at 1-1.
Two frames later, Pearson collected her second hit of the ballgame before letting her speed take care of the rest. The smooth shortstop stole second base and then capitalized on a pair of Danville errors to sprint the rest of the way home for the game-winning run.
Fuller and Caitlin Kuykendall both came through with one hit apiece, while Christensen was a force on the mound, fanning seven in her first complete game of the day.
Catcher Grace Griggs helped preserve the victory by throwing out a Hawk trying to steal second in the top of the seventh inning.
“I was proud of the girls’ efforts and how hard they’ve worked to be able to play better,” Smothers said. “Also, the confidence they’ve displayed. When they’ve needed to make plays late in ballgames, they’ve made plays.”
With a layoff of a little more than a week before regionals, the coach said his first order of business will be to practice as a team, something the squad hasn’t been able to as a unit since spring break.
“We’re just going to go down there, play the best we can and hope we catch a few breaks,” he said.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.