As the middle-of-the-order slugger for a program having a string of its best seasons, Bella Smith never shied away from the spotlight.
“We just learn to take whatever pressure is on us and push it back the other way,” she said. “I’ve been playing in big games my whole life it seems. We decide we don’t want to fail and we make it happen.”
There have been big moments in the state tournament. There have been big moments to get the Bells Lady Panthers to state. And yet the next big moment in her career came not in front of hundreds of cheering fans but just her family.
Smith signed her letter of intent to play softball for Lubbock Christian with little fanfare, not by design but because of the coronavirus pandemic that brought her final high school season to a halt a little more than a month ago.
“When I got to Lubbock Christian it felt like home,” Smith said about the Division II program. “I felt like I belonged there. I had a couple of other options but it was kinda obvious that Lubbock Christian was the place for me.”
Smith, an outfielder, will graduate as one of the best players in program history, sporting at least a pair of state championship rings and a powerful swing that has produced nearly 50 home runs in her career.
“I think it’s been a really good experience. The girls who have come in and out of Bells have made an impact on me,” Smith said.
The hope is that she will get to play again for the Lady Panthers but in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, University Interscholastic League activities have been suspended since March 16 and cannot resume until at least May 4. An opportunity for the Lady Panthers to win a third championship in four seasons may not materialize through no fault of their own.
During her freshman and sophomore seasons, Smith helped lead the Lady Panthers’ title-winning efforts. Both times Bells went into the seventh inning of the Class 2A championship game without the lead and both times an unforgettable rally, first against two-time defending champ Shiner, 7-6, by scoring five runs in the top of the inning with Smith’s two-run homer being the difference, and then over Normangee, 9-5, with another five-run top of the seventh inning that allowed them to come away with back-to-back crowns, the first titles in program history.
In the first championship game, she was 2-for-4 with a home run, double, two RBI and scored twice and in the second Smith was named the MVP as she was 2-for-4 with a double, two RBI and scored twice. Her two-run double in the seventh put the Lady Panthers ahead to stay.
“The first one stands out more. No one was expecting that at all and I don’t think even we were,” Smith said. “We were definitely the underdog. And as a freshman I didn’t know what I high school softball was all about.”
Last season Bells moved up to Class 3A and had a showdown with Emory Rains in the Region II final. The Lady Panthers sported a 35-1 record but ended up getting swept, 3-1 and 8-2, as Rains went 34-1 and finished as the state champs.
When the games were halted earlier in mid-March, Bells had a 15-2-2 record and Smith was batting .420 with seven home runs, 27 RBI and scored 32 times.
As a junior, Smith was a first-team all-state and first-team all-district selection after batting .530 with 20 homers, 14 doubles, four triples, 60 RBI and 61 runs scored.
During her sophomore season, Smith was a first-team all-state pick and named first-team all-district after hitting .409 with nine home runs, 11 doubles, 45 RBI, 50 runs and 13 steals.
And as a freshman, Smith hit .423 with seven homers and 30 RBI. She was a second-team all-district pick in 13-2A and chosen for the 2A all-state tournament team.
Lubbock Christian was 20-6 on the season and tied for fifth in the Lone Star Conference standings at 5-3 when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the rest of its schedule. The Lady Chaps were in their first season of Lone Star Conference play after moving over from the Heartland Conference, where they made the NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament in 2016 and 2017. From 2011-13, the program competed at the NAIA level and made three straight trips to the National Championships.
Last season the Lady Chaps were 32-19 overall and 16-14 in the Heartland Conference but did advance to the conference tourney title game before losing to champion Oklahoma Christian.
“They had a really successful season before they stopped and with the seniors being able to come back for the extra year, it’s the same team plus me and the other new girls,” Smith said. “That played a really big factor. At any college, you’re going to have to fight for a position, Nothing is guaranteed.”