October 20, 2013 2:07:35 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
Clinton High School slow-pitch softball coach Allen Lunceford wasn't looking forward to his second-round assignment in the Mississippi High School Activities Association's Class 5A/6A playoffs.
The Lady Arrows saw their season end a year ago with a second-round loss at Columbus. Lunceford said the crowd gave Columbus a huge home-field advantage, which is why he wasn't looking forward to trying his odds in that venue again.
However, the Lady Arrows were pleased with the surroundings Saturday afternoon.
Clinton advanced to the North State finals with 7-3 and 3-2 victories to sweep the best-of-three series.
Clinton will play host to Neshoba Central for the North State championship. For Columbus, the season ends at 9-9.
"We made way too many mistakes to win a series like this," Columbus first-year coach Eric Thornton said. "We had some physical ones, but we also had some mental ones, too. We totally gave the first game away. It took a while for the girls to get focused in and to play to their potential. Since they had been in this round before, that was a little hard to believe because this was really nothing new to them. I am really proud of how we competed. We never could get a spark and never could get anything going. The biggest thing is we never got momentum going."
Lunceford was more than pleased to take any assistance provided to his Arrows by the home team. Clinton had two earned runs in Game 1 and on in Game 2.
"The crowd is very active and into the game here," Lunceford said. "I knew this was going to be a difficult situation. We were in this spot last year and we came out and just didn't hit the ball very well. Today, we didn't hit the ball well, either. Not to take anything away from Columbus, but our offense has not been what it needed to be for us to keep advancing. Fortunately, we caught some breaks in the first game and it carried over to the second one."
In Game 2, Clinton built a 3-0 lead with a run in the first inning and two in the fifth. The Lady Arrows plated those two runs thanks in large part to the Lady Falcons' only three errors in the game.
"We had a stretch where we didn't make plays, " Thornton said. "It was frustrating because we had been making most of the plays. Our defense was good against Tupelo (in a first-round series win Tuesday night). Clinton was a little better than us in a lot of different ways."
After failing to score with the bases loaded in the fourth, Columbus tried to rally thanks to home runs by Ania Bell in the sixth and Kiara Conner in the seventh.
Things then got a little hairy.
With two outs, Columbus got a single from Tiquasha Wilson. Timaria Hudgins followed with a line-drive double off the outfield wall. Right center-fielder Rachel Saxton relayed the ball to second baseman Katlyn Lott, who threw to catcher Chelsea Waddell, who blocked the plate to retire Wilson and end Columbus' season.
"Two eighth-graders and a seventh-grader were involved in that play," Lunceford said. "In a lot of ways, we feel like we have been playing a little bit on borrowed time this year as young as this team is."
For Columbus, the season ended one round shy of where it ended last season. In the playoff opener against Tupelo, Columbus lost the opening game but responded with 35 hits to win the next two games.
"We had been in this position before, so I really hoped things would carry over," Thornton said. "Even though we lost the first game, we felt like we were right there."
The Lady Falcons lose five seniors off a team, which shared a region championship -- a second-straight title.
"We had five seniors who meant a tremendous amount to our program," Thornton said. "I think we will compete next year. (Shaquera Wilson) coming back at short is big. The two girls who hit home runs were both freshmen."
For Clinton, two more wins will mean a trip to the Class 5A/6A state championship series.
"Last year, we came up and had a chance to win," Lunceford said. "Their fans got us a little rattled last year and we shut it down. We relished the opportunity to come back here and to stare that dog in the face. Columbus is fast and athletic. We feel fortunate. We really do."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter