WALKER – It wasn’t just preseason rhetoric when Walker’s softball team established such lofty goals as winning the District 4-5A championship and reaching the state playoffs.
Considering the Lady Cats were coming off a last-place league finish, a 10-win season without the taste of postseason play, such expectations may have appeared ill-advised.
“From the beginning, the goal was district champs and playoffs,” Walker senior second baseman Laynie Jones.
That’s what made the events of Tuesday even sweeter, scoring twice in the first inning and riding a strong pitching performance from Lainee Bailey to wrap up the District 4-5A title with a 3-1 victory over Denham Springs at Randy Bradshaw Field.
“It’s awesome,” said Walker coach Hali Westmorland-Fletcher, who in 2009 played on the last Walker team to win a district championship. “I’m just proud of them for trusting the process and for working hard. They did it. We’re here to encourage and direct some traffic. They show up and showed out.”
Walker (21-9, 7-1 in district) potentially secured a Top 10-power rating and will be at home in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs which begin later this week.
They’ll have a rooting interest from Denham Springs coach Leslie Efferson-Yellot, who personally offered her congratulations to Walker’s team afterward.
“I’m just proud of them,” she said. “I told them to go get it in the postseason, go get it for the district. We want to go as far as we can, and we want them to go as far as they can as well.”
Denham Springs (21-6, 5-3) has also enjoyed an upward trajectory after winning 12 games a year ago, advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
After taking a 6-1 win over Walker just over weeks ago with a quick 3-1 lead, the Lady Jackets surrendered a pair of first-inning runs, committed two errors and weren’t quite able to solve Bailey in the circle.
“They played like us the first game and we played like them this game,” Efferson-Yellot said. “That’s exactly what happened. They executed. They put the ball in play. We made errors.”
Westmorland-Fletcher may have thrown the Denham Springs staff a curve in starting Bailey over Haleigh Pourciau, the losing pitching in their earlier matchup. Pourciau was in the lineup and started at third base.
Bailey, a freshman, carried a perfect game into the seventh inning until Rayne Minor’s infield single led off the inning. The Lady Jackets scored on Natalie Parker’s one-out single and an error, but Bailey answered by getting fly ball outs to Savanah Stafford in center field to nail down the district title.
Bailey finished with a complete-game, two-hitter with no walks and six strikeouts.
“I threw strikes and I knew they were going to hit it, so I let my defense back me up,” said Bailey, who said she was unaware of her no-hitter going into the seventh. “They had my timing down in the seventh and put a lot more balls in play than what they did throughout the game. Savanah had two good catches in the outfield, so I knew she had my back.”
Said Westmoreland-Fletcher: “Haleigh’s knee has bothered her a little and Lainee’s been doing a great job and we went with our gut. Lainee goes great on the mound and Haleigh does great on defense. It’s a system and when it needs a change, we change it and if not, we go with what’s working.”
It took Walker two batters to reach its hit total in its previous meeting against Parker.
The Lady Cats loaded the bases on an infield single from Gyvan Hammons, Jones’ bunt single and a fielding error on a fielder’s choice.
Bailey made it 1-0 with a sacrifice fly and Ryann Schexnayder added a run-scoring single up the middle. The Lady Cats added an unearned run in the fourth on a throwing error.
“Scoring first is a big deal because it sets the tone for the game,” Bailey said. “Once we did that it kind of calmed me down and helped me relax.”
Bailey struck out four of the first six batters she faced, and her teammates played errorless behind her until the seventh, opening the door for Denham Springs to break through with a run, but the Lady Jackets couldn’t get any closer.
Parker (21-6) only allowed two hits after the first inning and yielded five for the game. She walked one and struck out two.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” said Jones, who had two hits. “We came out wanting this and fighting for it. We didn’t give up when the pressure was on. We pushed through it.”