Fort White loses heartbreaker in state title game

After Jay’s Alayna Lowery went deep for her 14th homer of the year to cap off a five-run fourth inning, it looked like the Royals were going to cruise to their first 1A state softball title over first-time finalist Fort White.

The Indians trailed 5-0 with only three innings left, but Fort White fought back to tie the game with two runs in the fifth and three more in the sixth. Suddenly it was 5-5 and all the momentum was with the Indians. 

But Jay (22-5) scored a run in the bottom of the sixth on two Fort White errors and went on to a 6-5 win in the 1A state title game at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont. 

Down to their final out in the top of the seventh, Kaitlin Suggs, Hannah LeBleu and Morgan Kelly all singled to load the bases. That brought up leadoff hitter Gracie Clemons, who already had two hits and an RBI. Clemons hit the ball hard, but right at Jay shortstop Ella Nelson and the Royals celebrated on the field. 

“She (Gracie) hit the ball hard but their shortstop was positioned right and made a great play,” said Chad Padgett, Fort White’s co-head coach with his wife, Michelle. “There was nothing else I could ask of our girls. I was proud of the fan support in our community.

Fort White (16-8) got off to a fast start in its first state semifinal game on Tuesday, scoring seven runs in the first two innings and then holding off another first-time state semifinalist, Dixie County (Cross City), 7-5. 

But the Indians only managed two hits off Jay starting pitcher Mattie Cochran in the first four innings, while Fort White’s Kaden Compton held the Royals off the scoreboard until the fourth inning.

Kaylee Gilbreath and Bailey Lopez both doubled to put runners on second and third. Brett Watson then hit a comebacker to Compton, but she threw the ball away on the throw home and both Gilbreath and Lopez scored the first two runs of the game. 

Cochran delivered an RBI single to extend the lead to 3-0 before Lowery capped off the big inning with the two-run blast over the wall in left and the Jay lead was 5-0. 

“In the fifth inning I told the girls to just smile and enjoy the moment,” Chad Padgett said. “They were too uptight, and when they started feeling more comfortable they started to hit the ball.”

Fort White got two runs back in the fifth to cut the deficit to 5-2. With two outs, Lowery threw a ball past first and two runs scored. 

Then the Indians sent nine batters to the plate in the sixth, scoring three runs and chasing Cochran from the circle for Lowery. 

Lowery allowed three straight RBI singles to Clemons, Compton, and Madelyn Keen to tie the game at 5-5, but Fort White left the bases loaded to end the fifth. 

“We didn’t get to scout Jay but they were able to scout us because of the game times,” Padgett said. “But despite not seeing a pitcher like Lowery we still hit her. We just can hit the ball well.”

Jay responded with what turned out to be the winning run in the bottom of the sixth. Fort White third baseman N’Coreyia Atkins committed back-to-back errors with the second error being a throw past first base on a ground ball that put the Royals ahead 6-5. 

That set up the drama in the seventh.

After the first two Indians’ batters were retired, Fort White hit three straight singles and loaded the bases. On the third single, Kaitlyn Suggs, representing the tying run, slipped and missed third base. That brought up Clemons, who lined out to the shortstop to give Jay the title. 

“This has been such a great experience, making it here for the first time,” Padgett said. “It’s hard to get here but we are going to work as hard as possible to make it back here and take care of business next season.”

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