Columbus High School slow-pitch softball coach Eric Thornton, left, sophomore M’Kya Smith, and the rest of the Lady Falcons will travel Thursday to Flowood to take on Northwest Rankin in the third round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class III State tournament. Photo by: Adam Minichino/Dispatch Staff
October 11, 2018 10:44:56 AM
M'Kya Smith would like you to think she is quiet.
Don't let her fool you, though, because Columbus High School slow-pitch softball coach Eric Thornton said his sophomore catcher/pitcher/shortstop can be one of the loudest players on the team.
Smith let her bat do the talking Tuesday in a pivotal moment to help Columbus extend its season. Smith's line drive to center field in the eighth inning propelled Columbus to a 13-12 victory against Grenada in Game 2 and a sweep of their best-of-three series in the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class III State tournament.
"We put up a good fight," Smith said. "We were cheering our team on. We had faith in ourselves. We just cheered and pumped our team up because they were dropping their heads."
Columbus (19-10) will take on Northwest Rankin at 5 p.m. Thursday in Flowood in a best-of-three series. The winner will advance to take on the winner of the best-of-three series between Tupelo and reigning champion Neshoba Central for the North State title.
Columbus, which defeated Starkville in the first round, is in the third round of the playoffs for the first time under Thornton, who also coaches the school's fast-pitch team. Last season, Columbus lost to Neshoba Central in the second round of the playoffs. In 2016, New Hope eliminated Columbus in the first round.
Thornton said the Lady Falcons advanced after hearing they didn't have a chance to go on the road to beat Grenada. Columbus ignored the comments and took Game 1 8-7. It then rallied from an 11-5 deficit in the bottom of the sixth thanks to some timely hitting and hustle.
"I told them at the end of the game that's probably as proud of a team that I've coached just because of the heart and the effort," Thornton said. "You could probably point out 15 different plays and things that happened that if you're going 80 percent not 100 we don't make those plays, or safe at first, or things don't happen. The girls were selfless.
"It was pretty neat because it was the bottom of our lineup that hadn't hit well all night. In the first game, the top half of our lineup carried us. We talked real hard about making sure we were running everything out and hustling and made everything tough on them. We didn't hit the ball real well. We hit some dribblers that we just beat out and took some chances on some balls in the outfield and made them make some tough plays."
Thornton said the final play epitomized his team's feisty nature. With the bases loaded and two outs, he said his team's runner from first base had a hard slide into second base on a ground ball to second base. He said the hustle play might have played a role in the infielder covering second base dropping the ball.
Thornton said the Lady Falcons have had an up-and-down season in which they have lost some games he thought they should win. He also said there were games the team didn't show the effort he wanted to see. Thornton said the team has solidified a lineup in the final three weeks and has played a lot better, especially at the plate. He also credited the development of some younger players for helping to elevate the team's chances for success.
"We have a pretty good mix," Thornton said. "Our outfield is pretty much all juniors. We have a 10-th-grader at first base, a 10th-grader that catches, a ninth-grader at second, and three or four girls who are ninth-graders who have rotated in and out at various positions."
Smith said she did her part to help raise the team's spirits after it fell behind in Game 2. She also credited Haleigh Gore and Keayra Hughes for helping to fire up their teammates to keep the season alive. Gore, Hughes, Berniya Hardin, Beyonce McCrary, and Chelsea Smith are the only seniors on a 31-player roster. The Lady Falcons have 16 players in grades seven through 10.
"We just have to keep it together and stay confident," Smith said.
Thornton said many of the players on the slow-pitch roster also play on the school's fast-pitch team. He said he isn't sure if this will be the final year for slow-pitch softball in the MHSAA. He said a recent survey conducted by the MHSAA didn't identify enough teams that were interested in playing the sport in 2019-2020, so he said everyone likely will have to wait until November for a final decision.
On Thursday, tough, Thornton said Columbus, which finished second to Tupelo in its region, won't wait to try to make things happen. He hopes the Lady Falcons, who weren't able to practice Wednesday due to the rain, will come out with the same amount of enthusiasm and determination to reach uncharted territory since the slow-pitch classes have merged.
"I think the fact that we have some younger ones that maybe don't understand and don't know is probably a benefit for us," Thornton said. "I don't think they understand the pressure of it. Some of them might. They had the mind-set (against Grenada) that people didn't believe in them. I think when they saw they could compete with Grenada it just kind of changed their mind-set. I think if we carry that over (to Northwest Rankin) I think we have got a chance. That is what we have been preaching all year: If you give 100-percent effort, you give yourself a chance no matter who you're playing."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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