The Lady Bulldogs, despite muddy conditions, despite having four head coaches in four years, despite a one-game series, and despite falling behind early against a really good pitcher, stared adversity down in the face, made in-game changes to the approach to the game and came from behind to win their third consecutive bi-district title.
The series with S&S was changed from a three-gamer to a one-gamer due to UIL’s ruling of not allowing two games on Thursday night, which was to be played in S&S. With the ruling, the game was relocated to Gunter for Wednesday and the field, despite great efforts from Gunter ISD, was on the sticky side. That was evident as the field conditions played a role in the very first batter Howe faced. A bouncing ball was tapped back to pitcher Torrey Stubblefield who turned to throw to second baseman Madisyn Hargrove covering first base. However, Hargrove slipped and never made it to the bag and the runner was safe. At that point, things seemed to unravel for the Lady Bulldogs in the first inning as Stubblefield then fielded a bunt and quickly made an errant throw to first base to Hargrove covering which resulted in an error and runners at the corners with no outs. Howe then traded a run for an out on a grounder to Blackburn. The next batter hit a grounder just out of the reach of Hargrove which allowed the second run of the inning to come in.
Howe trailed 2-0 after the first frame and couldn’t get on top of the constant high fastball from S&S’s lefty Jada Muller. The Lady Bulldogs popped out five times of their first nine outs in the game. Howe head coach Jeff Martin then changed the strategy in stride and forced the game into the S&S defense via an attack of bunts. The Lady Rams had trouble picking the ball off of the sticky surface and making the plays. In the top of the fourth, Peyton Streetman walked with one out, advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on a bunt by Hargrove. The run cut the Lady Rams’ lead in half at 2-1.
The game was turned around in the top of the fourth inning thanks to a tremendous at bat by Payton Griffin. The tall power hitter worked a full count and fouled off several pitches to stay alive before drawing a leadoff walk.
“I was just thinking that I needed to get on to start the inning off. I had to be a leadoff (hitter) and I had to show it.” Said Griffin.
“That was a big part of it.” Said Martin. “We had to get something going. It was hard at first because we couldn’t get anyone on base to get bunts going. We knew that the first and third baseman were playing deep and were not coming up. So we just went down the lines.”
Consecutive bunts by Dani Ross and Kamryn Fulenchek loaded the bases with no one out. Emily Sanders then hit a sacrifice fly to center to bring home Griffin to tie the game at 2-2. Erin Blackburn followed with a single up the middle to drive in Ross and give Howe their first lead of the night at 3-2.
Beyond the first inning, starting pitcher Stubblefield began to settle in and faced only two over the minimum in the last five innings of the game. Overall, she struck out nine batters while walking two, allowing one earned run on three hits and went the distance by throwing 119 pitches. S&S starting pitcher Muller also threw a complete game, striking out eight, walking four and allowing four earned runs on seven hits. She threw 125 total pitches.
Howe’s two insurance runs came in the top of the seventh inning when Blackburn led off with a single and was driven home on a sacrifice fly by Hargrove. Stubblefield then reached on a hard liner that was “too hot to handle.” Kayla Anderson then rammed one off of the right centerfield wall to bring in Stubblefield for the game’s final score of 5-2.
Stubblefield slammed the door on the Lady Rams with strikeout to end the game.
“I thought the kids showed a lot of grit tonight. We didn’t play very well and left too many people on base.” Said Martin. “It’s about surviving and advancing.”
Photos by Michelle Carney/Howe Enterprise