Branford edges defending champions to advance

Branford celebrated the program's first trip to the state championship after defeating Jay, 2-1, on Monday.
Photo by Mike Ridaught

To borrow a softball statistic, the area batted .500 and went 1-for-2 on Monday at the FHSAA Softball state championships at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont.

Top seed Branford advanced to its first state championship game appearance in school history with a 2-1 win against defending 1A state champion Jay in the first 1A state semifinal.

However, Dixie County (Cross City) had its season come to an end with a 6-2 loss to Liberty County (Bristol) in the second 1A semifinal.

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“Words can’t describe it,” Branford coach Oscar Saavedra said following the game when asked how it feels to be heading to the state championship game. “I’m extremely happy. It’s a dream for all of us, for our school, we had the community always here supporting us. We want to win it for us and for the town of Branford.”

The Buccaneers (25-4) advanced by scoring two runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to break a scoreless game.

With one on and one out, sophomore Ellie Frierson lined a shot off of the glove of the second baseman for a hit, which allowed sophomore catcher Morgan Brennan, who had walked and gone to second on a wild pitch, to score the first run of the game.

“It was huge,” Saavedra said. “We were due. We were due of something. It was a timing thing. We were either late, we were either early. Luckily, Ellie got adjusted to it and made things happen.”

It took them a while to make things happen against No. 4 seed Jay (16-12) because of senior pitcher Jenna Toups.

Branford pitcher Laila Arnold had 12 strikeouts in the Buccaneers' 2-1 win over Jay.
Photo by Mike Ridaught Branford pitcher Laila Arnold had 12 strikeouts in the Buccaneers' 2-1 win over Jay.

After giving up four in the first two innings, Toups settled down and retired 12 in a row before giving up the walk to Brennan, her first free pass of the game.

In addition to the big RBI single, Frierson made a diving play in center field in the top of the seventh inning to rob leadoff hitter Ella Nelson of a hit.

Nelson was also responsible for another big play in top of the fifth.

With the bases loaded and two outs, Nelson attempted to steal home but was thrown out by sophomore pitcher Laila Arnold to Brennan at the plate.

“Before she did it we all had kind of noticed that she was leading off farther and farther for each inning and she wasn’t really going back very quickly,” Arnold said. “And so we kind of picked that up and my shortstop came up to me and she was like ‘hey, you need to watch this. Pick your head up and look because she’s probably going to do it,’ and we just kind of already knew. We work on quick transfer a lot so it just kind of played into this.”

Saavedra echoed Arnold’s comment.

“We knew it was coming,” he said. “They were antsy over here at third base. They almost got caught off guard, but we work on that. We always work on the little things because when it happens we’ve got to make it happen. Luckily they were on their toes and made it happen.”

It was one of several times that Arnold (six walks, three hit batsmen) worked out of jams, including the final inning when the Royals wouldn’t go away quietly.

After Frierson’s diving play, the Royals’ Brett Watson had an infield hit. With the tying run at the plate, Caitlyn Gavin hit one to the warning track in left field that appeared to be heading out.

Although left fielder Alex Whitfield was able to get to it at the fence, the ball bounced out of her glove which put the tying and go-ahead runners on base.

Morgan Barrow lined a ball to left that was caught by Whitfield but deep enough to score Watson to make it 2-1.

Both runners also moved up on the throw to the plate.

With two outs, Arnold struck out No. 6 hitter Kaylee Gilbreath to end the game.

The sophomore threw a complete game with 12 strikeouts and only four hits allowed.

But it was Whitfield’s squeeze bunt, scoring Frierson in the bottom of the sixth inning to push the lead to 2-0, that ended up being the difference.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” Arnold said about advancing to Tuesday’s state final at 4 p.m. against Liberty County. “It’s nerve wracking but also it’s incredible because this is the farthest we’ve ever got, and I’m just proud to do it for my school, I’m proud to do it for my family, and friends. It’s just a big deal to me.”

Liberty County 6, Dixie County 2 

For the second consecutive year, the Dixie County softball team lost in the Class 1A state semifinals.

The No. 2 seed Bears gave up four runs over the final three innings to the No. 3 seed Bulldogs (20-8) in a 6-2 loss.

Head coach Greg Wimberley, who noted this was a team with five new starters, was quick to put the loss on his shoulders and he was also quick to recognize the run that they’ve had the past two years.

“I didn’t make the adjustments I needed to make today so I’m sorry to them for that,” he said. “But they had a great year and I told them there aren’t but four teams that end up in this spot and they were one of them for two years. That’s nothing to hang your head about.”

Liberty County’s Chamiya Williams started the scoring with a leadoff single, followed by a stolen base. She scored on a single down the left field line by Gabriella Flowers for a 1-0 lead.

Photo by Mike Ridaught The Dixie County softball team fell 6-2 to Liberty County on Monday in the Class 1A state semifinals.

The Bears (21-6) answered in the bottom of the first inning on an RBI single by catcher Peyton Hatcher to tie the game 1-1.

In the third inning, Liberty County scored on a Dixie County error to make it 2-1.

Once again, the Bears tied it up, scoring a run on a Bulldogs’ error in the bottom of the third inning to make it 2-2.

That would be the only runs the Bears would score off of starting pitcher Lauren Grantham and seventh inning reliever Kallan Mercer, who retired the side in order to end the game.

But they added four big insurance runs off of Dixie County starter Bria Hinkle, who only allowed two runs on four hits with no walks and five strikeouts until the fifth inning.

Flowers had a two-RBI double in the top of the fifth and Williams had a two-run home run to left field to end the career of Dixie County’s outgoing seniors, who are the winningest in Dixie County history.

“Our pitcher’s (Hinkle) got more wins than anybody else in Dixie County history,” Wimberley said. “Our catcher’s (Hatcher) probably going to be the best in the state in hitting and catching. This was a great group of seniors. We’ve got some young girls coming back next year and I hope this lights the fire and fuels them to put in the work over the summer because really that’s where it starts.”

Softball results – Monday, May 22

Class 1A state semifinals at Legends Way Ball Fields in Clermont

1 Branford 2, 4 Jay 1

3 Liberty County (Bristol) 6, 2 Dixie County (Cross City) 2

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