AUSTIN — They are the fly you can’t get rid of, no matter how many swats you take. They are the unkillable horror film baddie, popping up at every turn to claim the latest victim. They are the Bells Lady Panthers, queens of late-inning drama on softball’s biggest stage when it comes to winning the UIL’s biggest prize.
“Hard work. Effort. Never giving up. Perseverance. Any adjective I can throw out there,” Bells head coach Kristina Stephens said. “Heart. Pride. All of the adjectives fit these girls.”
For the second straight year Bells went into the seventh inning of the Class 2A title game trailing and ended up putting together a five-run inning to be the ones hoisting the trophy at the end. This time it came at the expense of Normangee in a 9-5 victory at Red and Charline McCombs Field on Thursday.
“Most people don’t get one, let alone two,” senior left fielder Hali Williams said. “It’s an amazing feeling. It’s an awesome thing for our program.”
Sophomore center fielder Bella Smith was named the MVP, going 2-for-4 with what turned out to be the deciding hit in the top of the seventh — a two-run double off the left-field wall with the bases loaded and one out. It gave Bells a 6-5 lead that ultimately stretched to a four-run advantage.
“When you put us in that situation, we don’t have the nerves,” Stephens said. “We knew we could do that. Whether it was last year or the past two weeks with Crawford and Bosqueville pushing us. They find a way.”
Smith set the 2A state tourney record for seven RBI across the two games and tie the record for most hits in a tourney appearance with six. She and senior catcher Ashley Sloan, who was 3-for-4 with an RBI double and scored, in tying the record with two doubles at the 2A state tourney.
“We do very well under pressure,” Smith said. “We knew we had to rally.”
In winning its second straight championship and second overall, Bells (28-8) improved to 14-0 in elimination games in that stretch. Much like last year’s 7-6 victory over two-time defending champ Shiner, it was a stunning blow to Normangee (31-5), which was trying to nail down the final three outs for a title in its first trip to state.
“Not drama. It’s always excitement,” sophomore pitcher Cheyenne Floyd said. “Our bottom of the lineup was where it was at. They really came through for us. I felt confident in what we were going to do.”
It started with a single to left field by Jalen Hartline to turn the lineup over and Gabby Smith was hit by a pitch. Floyd grounded into a fielder’s choice that was a force at third before Mia Moore’s infield single in the hole at short.
That sent Bella Smith to the plate and she delivered what turned out to be the game-turning blow.
“I was just thinking base hit. I had confidence like I always have,” she said. “I took a deep breath. I just needed to get a hit.”
But the action didn’t end there. Sloan followed with an RBI single to left and Smith scored on a wild pitch. Williams closed out the fun with a two-out RBI single to provide a championship-winning cushion.
Last year Bells went into the seventh against Shiner down 5-2 before scoring five times and hanging on. In that one Smith hit a two-run homer to cap the outburst with what turned out to be the deciding run as well.
“If Bella puts the ball in play it’s going to be hard somewhere,” Stephens said.
The Lady Panthers will move up to Class 3A for next season, meaning a three-peat will be a little harder, despite returning seven of nine starters.
Normangee broke the four-all tie with a run in the bottom of the sixth. Hannah Morton singled to open the frame and was sacrificed to second. A groundout moved her to third and Maci Sanders, who was 3-for-4 and scored twice, drove her in with a single to right center.
But the state tourney first-timers couldn’t get the final three outs needed to dethrone Bells and Floyd worked around a leadoff walk in the seventh with three straight outs to keep the crown in Grayson County.
“We knew what we had to do,” Williams said. “Our only goal was to make them hit again.”
Normangee had tied the game at four in the bottom of the fifth. Sanders reached on an infield hit and Lexi Harris followed with a single to left. They moved up on a delayed steal when Sloane Swearingen struck out. With first base open, Bells elected to pitch to Ashlyn Teran, who was 2-for-2 at that point and the three behind her in the order were a combined 0-for-6.
Teran singled to right center over a drawn-in infield to tie the game. Floyd got a pop-out to short and a lineout to left to keep the score even.
Bells went up 4-2 in the fifth on a two-out error. Hartline walked with one out and courtesy runner Victoria Azevedo ended up at third on a pair of wild pitches, the latter with two outs. Floyd grounded up the middle and Sanders bobbled it at short as Azevedo scored.
A wild sequence in the top of the second allowed Bells to take a 3-2 lead. Bella Smith led off with a hit up the middle and Cheznie Hale reached on an error when the throw to get the force at second went into left field. Williams hit a tapper back to the circle and the left-handed Teran looked at third for a potential force — everyone ended up being safe.
Chesney Blount grounded out to first to drive in a run and then Hale scored on a wild pitch. The throw to the plate dribbled away and Williams came around to score as well.
Normangee put Bells in a 2-0 hole in the bottom of the first as the first four batters reached base. Sanders went the other way with a single to left, Harris bunted for a hit on a sequence which saw both runners end up in scoring position before Swearinger’s bunt single loaded the bases.
Teran doubled to the left-center gap for the two-run advantage but Floyd managed to keep the deficit there. She struck out Madison Light, fielded a comebacker and then struck out Morton looking to end the inning.
“We knew they were here to play and we had to raise or game and answer back,” Stephens said.