MOSS BLUFF – Walker High’s softball team had traveled too far this season to be turned back 15 miles away from the site of the state tournament.
Not even the top-seeded team in Class 5A could stand in their way.
With a starting lineup dominated by freshmen, Walker showed youth was served, relying on the pitching of Lainee Bailey and the offensive punch of left fielder Bree Brown, the eighth-seeded Lady Cats advanced to their first state tournament for the first time since 2007 with an 8-2 road state quarterfinal victory at Sam Houston.
Walker (24-9) meets the winner of Saturday’s St. Amant-Ouachita Parish game in next Friday’s state semifinal at Sulphur’s Frasch Park at a time to be announced.
“As soon as we got on the bus this morning we were up,” Brown said. “We were really pumped. We knew had to come out with intensity in order to win this game. We had to bring it and we did.”
Walker, which started six freshmen compared to eight for Sam Houston, had already gotten a glimpse of the Lady Broncos nearly two months ago in a 5-4 loss during a tournament at St. Amant.
The rematch at Sam Houston, which had won its last 32 games at home, was close early on where the Lady Broncos scored in the bottom of the first on a fielding error.
“We made a lot of base-running mistakes the last time we played them,” Walker’s second-year coach Hali Fletcher said. “When we came here, we knew that we were solidly matched. We hit the ball well, we knew they hit the ball well. We played deep (in the outfield) and tried to keep everything in front. We made sure the pitchers knew we were hitting spots and trusting the defense.”
Walker tied the game with a run in the second, took a 2-1 lead in the third and opened a 4-1 advantage on Brown’s two-run homer to left-center field.
With Savanah Stafford aboard with a lead-off single, Brown stepped in with one out and faced Sam Houston starter Jenny Griggers, whom she homered against in their earlier meeting this season.
Brown, the team’s ninth-place hitter, ran the count full when she unloaded on a pitch that was low and inside.
“I knew I had to do something, I had to do a job and hit the ball,” said Brown, who was 2-for-4 with a double and drove in three runs. “The whole season I really hadn’t been swinging at inside pitches because I was getting jammed. In warm-ups I was actually hitting them.”
Bailey, a freshman, stranded four runners through three innings, having walked three and allowing only an infield single.
Sam Houston (28-4) threatened to get back into the game in the fourth, loading the bases on a single, fielder’s choice and fielding error, bringing third-place batter Jill Poullard to the plate.
Bailey had previously walked Poullard twice and faced a full count after her 2-2 pitch which appeared to be a strike, was ruled a ball. She responded, though, by getting Poullard to swing and miss at a pitch down and away from the left-handed hitter.
Sam Houston left 11 runners on base, including eight in scoring position.
“That was huge,” Fletcher said. “That was one of their best hitters at the plate. She’s a phenomenal player. That was a huge out. Lainee did a great job with the bases loaded.”
Said Bailey, “You just take it pitch by pitch. My goal is to get a grounder or pop fly.”
Bailey scattered four hits, walked five and struck out five in her 102-pitch outing, 57 of which were strikes.
With Sam Houston’s batting order set to turn over to the top of the lineup that featured three consecutive left-handed hitters, Fletcher brought in left-hander Ryann Schexnayder, a freshman, to face the Lady Broncos.
Schexnayder pitched two scoreless innings, allowing three hits and striking out one.
Walker’s defense helped preserve a 5-2 lead when third baseman Haleigh Pourciau alertly threw home to catcher Alayna Daigrepont to cut down Erin Ardoin trying to score from third on a bloop single to shallow left field.
Walker’s offense, which collected eight hits led by Brown and shortstop Madelyn Bourgoyne (2-3, RBI), took a 5-2 lead on Brown’s double into the seventh inning where the Lady Cats added three insurance runs on run-scoring hits from Schexnayder and Pourciau.
Schexnayder retired five of the last six batters she faced with Savanah Stafford tracking down a pair of long fly balls in center field and Bourgoyne, who recorded five assists, squeezed a pop up for the final out, resulting in a jubilant scene on the infield.
“This is really big,” Bailey said. “We’re collectively a young team and just to know we’re going to have three more years of this is really exciting.”