With one swing of the bat on Wednesday morning, the dream season ended for the Branford softball team.
Liberty County (Bristol) sophomore Chesnee Hires hit a two-out, three-run home run in the top of the fifth inning as the Bulldogs defeated Branford, 7-4, in the Class 1A state championship game at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont.
The Buccaneers (25-5), who defeated defending state champion Jay in Monday’s state semifinals, had played the Bulldogs toe to toe on Tuesday before two lightning delays ultimately pushed the conclusion of the game to this morning.
When play was suspended, the game was tied 4-4 with no outs in the top of the fifth inning and two Liberty County runners on base.
Once the game resumed Wednesday morning, Branford’s Laila Arnold was able to get two quick outs.
However, Hires delivered the game-winning shot off of Arnold to center field and the Bucs fell just short of their first state title in program history.
Branford failed to score with two on in the fifth, was retired in order in the sixth, and got a two-out double to left field by sophomore catcher Morgan Brennan in the final inning.
However, that’s as close as Branford would come to scoring.
“We were overwhelmed, happy, just to get to the championship game with us being such a young team,” said Branford coach Oscar Saavedra. “It wasn’t the outcome we wanted but we hung in there. This season was great. We can’t hold our heads down. We were prepared, it just didn’t go our way.”
Early on, on Tuesday, the Bucs seemed poised to win it all.
Liberty County scored a run in the top of the first inning on a single by junior Gabriella Flowers (2-for-4, three RBI), which scored freshman Chamiya Williams (3-for-4, five steals, three runs).
Branford sophomore Madyson Sikes (3-for-4) was left stranded at third base in the bottom of the first. However, the Bucs broke through in the bottom of the second inning with a pair of runs.
After a bunt single by sophomore Alex Whitfield (2-for-3, two runs) to start the inning, senior Makayla Williams (1-for-3, RBI, one run) singled in Whitfield and later scored on a throwing error for a 2-1 lead.
Liberty County got the run back in the top of the third as Chamiya Williams, who had a bunt single, scored from third base on a pop-up to the catcher in foul territory to tie the game 2-2.
The game see-sawed the other way as Branford plated two runs in the bottom of the third inning.
Eighth grader Ashlee Combee singled to left field to drive in Ellie Frierson and Whitfield for a 4-2 lead.
An RBI single by Liberty County senior Hayven Bunkley made it 4-3 in the top of the fourth, and then the Bulldogs added another run on an RBI single by senior catcher Elizabeth Arnold to tie the game in the top of the fifth just before the game was halted for a second time due to lightning.
It was the second state title for Liberty County (21-8), which eliminated Dixie County (Cross City) in the semifinals on Monday, and their first since 2013.
Branford only loses one senior (Makayla Williams), so a third final four in four years is certainly possible for the 2024 Buccaneers.
“Twenty four is going to be exciting,” Saavedra said. “We are trying to get better. We are still rough around the edges but that comes with young players. We are chasing that ring so we have to get better. It's time to do it. First time it was exciting, second time we almost made it, but the third time is going to be the charm. It’s a long road but we are going to work hard and nothing is going to stop us from getting that ring next year.”
Wednesday, May 24
Class 1A state championship at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont
3 Liberty County (Bristol) 7, 1 Branford 4
Monday, May 22
Class 1A state semifinals at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont
1 Branford 2, 4 Jay 1
3 Liberty County (Bristol) 6, 2 Dixie County (Cross City) 2