The first time that both Grayson County archrivals met at Denison on March 28, the host Lady Yellow Jackets completely dominated Sherman in a 10-0 five-inning run-rule blowout.
A lot has changed for the Lady Bearcats since that embarrassing moment, and it’s something first-year Sherman head coach Brenda Samuels readily points to.
“It was time to open our eyes and play ball,” Samuels said. “We were playing well before that game, but I just don’t think we were mentally prepared for Denison to be that good. I haven’t been here, but I know in previous years they’ve run-ruled them and things had been easier. After that, they said ‘Oh goodness, we’re better than this too, and we’ve got to get it together.’ ”
The Lady Cats (18-11, 8-3) have done quite a bit of work to cleanse the palate of that stinker a month ago. They’ve run the table in the second half of District 5-5A play to this point and have clinched their first playoff berth in five years.
This evening’s regular-season finale at Old Settlers Park between Sherman and 5-5A champion Denison at 5 p.m. — moved up because of the threat of bad weather — won’t have the drama that a win-and-get-in game would, because both teams are already headed for the postseason.
But playoff seeding is definitely still up for grabs for the Lady Cats, and tonight’s results will decide where they land in the Class 5A Region I bracket.
And the Lady Jackets, of course, want to pull rank a little bit. They haven’t had many opportunities to do so over the last 11 years, which is the interval since the last time Denison won a district title in softball.
“They’re on a roll right now. We’re on a roll right now,” Denison head coach Mike Garcia said. “We’re not going to get a 10-0 game. We’re going to get their best. They’re going to bring it.”
Judging by recent form, the Lady Jackets (15-11, 10-1) should have the upper hand. Denison is coming off a Wednesday 7-1 title-clinching win at home against Denton Ryan which avenged its only district loss; while Sherman, after a long bus ride west on U.S. 82, was offensively flat in a 4-1 win at last-place Wichita Falls on Tuesday, managing just five hits.
“The girls weren’t as excited as they were against Ryan,” Samuels said. “More or less we hit popup after popup and they caught them. Adjusting to their pitching took a while. Sometimes when you know you’ve got it, doing just enough is enough. Not enough for me, obviously. That road trip is tough on everybody.”
But while the bats have run hot and cold for Sherman, sophomore pitcher Jessica Bridges has been the steady force ever since returning from a midseason knee injury.
While the offense gave her sporadic support on the road Tuesday at Old High, Bridges (13-6) was characteristically stout in the circle, twirling a two-hitter and taking a shutout into the seventh.
“(On Tuesday) her goal was not to walk anybody, and she had that going until the seventh inning,” Samuels said of Bridges. “We always tell her that if she’s making them produce ground balls and pop flies, she’s doing her job. If she gets a strikeout here or there, then great, that just makes it that much easier for the team.”
In 134 innings, Bridges owns a 2.61 earned-run average and has struck out 148 batters while walking 61.
Bridges has also helped her own cause at the dish with a team-high .451 batting average, .471 on-base percentage and nine stolen bases in 13 attempts, and is breathing down junior shortstop Jill Dixon’s neck in several other batting categories.
Dixon, who was over .500 for much of the year, has regressed to the mean somewhat but is still batting .404 with a team-high 111 plate appearances, 40 hits, 11 doubles, 30 RBI and 22 runs scored.
Senior centerfielder Hailey Arndt, who has signed with Paris Junior College, has scored 21 runs on the year. Senior catcher Kaylee Walker has contributed as well with two homers and four sacrifice flies.
The bottom of Sherman’s lineup, while not as consistent, has also come up with big hits, Samuels said.
“When the game’s on the line, they produce,” Samuels said. “They’re very focused when they know they have no choice but to be focused. They have pulled through and helped us win some games multiple times this year.”
Denison already knows it will face the fourth-seeded team out of 6-5A in next weekend’s bi-district round. But which team the Lady Jackets will face out of that circuit is not certain. Going into tonight’s action, seven of eight 6-5A members remain alive for the postseason, with multiple tiebreaker scenarios involved.
Menwhile, Sherman goes into tonight in a flat-footed tie for second place with Ryan and can finish either second or third. In case of a tie, Samuels said a coin flip would be used rather than a tiebreaker game.
“We don’t want to risk anybody getting injured,” Samuels said. “If we were fighting to get into the playoffs, then we’d play that extra game. But since we’ve both got in there, we both believe that it’s better to flip a coin.”
In recent years, mainly because both teams were out of the race, a Sherman-Denison meeting was simply for pride and bragging rights.
The same is true tonight, but for a different reason: Both teams know they’ll be playing next week, no matter the outcome.
“Pressure’s off as far has having to win a game. Now it’s about having fun and taking on your rival,” Denison’s Garcia said. “They’ll be ready for the game. They want to win. We don’t want to go into the playoffs on a loss.”