MURFREESBORO — Bethany Cowart fought a losing battle with an overflow of emotion and tears. Reagan Schrader couldn’t stop smiling, her catcher’s gear still halfway on. Lexie Dean looked like she was never going to let go of the trophy.
All around her, Kaitlyn Eldridge’s three fellow seniors were soaking in the moment. Just minutes before, the group—and the rest of their teammates—had piled on Eldridge after she made a diving catch to secure the Class A state title.
“I’ve just imagined that the whole season—the last game of state and everyone just dogpiling,” Eldridge said.
The group came so close the last two years. Two straight runner-up finishes left the Grace Academy core with one last shot. Saturday afternoon, they got the celebration they’d been waiting for in a 3-2 victory over last year’s champion, Decatur Riverside.
“During the game, we’re saying, ‘Just think about last year,’” Eldridge said. “I couldn’t taste that, I couldn’t handle that anymore, being second place again. … Our team just came together. We’ve worked so hard this season.”
Fans poured onto the field at the Starplex complex in Murfreesboro, while cameras and reporters surrounded coaches and junior pitcher Tory Helton, who pitched 44 innings this week and drove in the final two runs with a double in the fifth inning.
All the talk was deferred to the eldest foursome.
This season marked their fourth trip to the state tournament in as many years. The previous three trips were led by Lacye Walker, the coach’s daughter who also finally got her championship this season—a national junior college title with Chattanooga State.
“How can you describe it?” said Alan Walker, an assistant coach and head coach Tina Walker’s husband. “We’ve had this senior group since middle school. It’s so special to watch them finally come out, in their fourth visit and win the state championship. That’s just phenomenal.”
It was Alan who made a visit to the circle, bringing the infield into a meeting just before Riverside’s final at-bat. With two outs in the seventh inning, the Lady Panthers had a runner on first and leadoff hitter, Lauren Jones, who already had two hits in the game, stepped to the plate.
“Relax,” Walker said. “We’ve got it, no matter what happens.”
Jones popped up between Eldridge at shortstop and Cowart in center field.
“At first I looked up and I’m saying I hope it doesn’t get in the sun,” Eldridge said. “I’m just running back and I hear Bethany, then I hear someone yell my name. And I just fall for it and it falls right in my glove and Bethany’s on the ground.”
The two of them looked at each other, but neither moved from the dirt as teammates converged.
The joy brought an end to an exhausting week. With a 4-2 loss to Forrest Tuesday morning, Grace’s run to a state title became nearly twice as long. What could have been accomplished in four games required seven. There was no room for error as the Eagles scrapped through the losers' bracket toward the championship, where they had to beat Riverside twice to avoid a third straight season as runner-up. An 8-0 win Friday night set up a decisive game Saturday.
“I can’t even breathe,” Helton said. “The whole week, I just had to put a game face on and if anybody asked, I would just say, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. My shoulder’s fine, I’m fine, I can do this. But I’m glad it’s over. I’m so glad we did this.”
Helton became Lacye Walker’s replacement on the mound and at the plate when she transferred to Grace before the season. The junior was named the team’s ace as soon as Tina Walker saw her pitch. She’s held the role all season, and delivered no bigger performance than Saturday’s seven innings in the circle and two RBIs at the plate.
She gave credit to the seniors, though. They were the ones she came to play alongside.
They were the ones talking about getting back to state in March.
“I could definitely see it happening,” Helton said. “We had the players, we had the team, we had the skill. We’re just one big family.”