Even though the result was a regular-season-ending loss, Sherman head coach Brenda Samuels knew her Lady Bearcat charges were ready for the playoffs.
The difference between one meeting and the next with archrival and District 5-5A champion Denison was like night and day. The Lady Cats, who were run-ruled by the Lady Yellow Jackets a month ago, this time battled the whole way and rallied in the bottom of a wild seventh inning, bringing the tying run to the plate before Denison finally got the 21st out for a 5-3 win on Friday.
So in a lot of ways, the setback was a win for the Lady Cats — a good thing to take into the postseason for the first time since 2012.
“You never want to lose to your rival, but it didn’t hurt us,” Samuels said.
The Lady Cats (18-12) will go for their first postseason win since 2011 starting tonight against Saginaw High in Game 1 of a Class 5A Region I home-and-home bi-district series at Saginaw at 7 p.m.
Game 2 is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m. at Old Settlers Park, with Game 3 if necessary set for Saturday afternoon, also at Old Settlers Park. However, the threat of bad weather this weekend could force some changes.
The playoffs are uncharted territory for Sherman’s four starting seniors — Hailey Arndt, Natalie Carrasco, Jayla Goodman and Kaylee Walker — who were still in eighth grade the last time the Lady Cats qualified.
“They’re very excited about it,” Samuels said. “But they’re also humble about it as well because they really don’t know how to act. They’ve never been in this spot. They’re working really hard because they know they can keep going. This doesn’t have to be the end.”
In the ensuing years, the Lady Cats struggled to finishes of 15-17 and a tie for fifth place in district in 2013; 8-20 and sixth place in 2014; 2-18 and winless in district in 2015; and 13-16 and seventh place a year ago.
But this spring, with a new coach, a senior-led lineup and a new district, everything finally came together for the Lady Cats and the team peaked at the right time, winning five straight district games before Friday’s close loss.
A lot of their success was born from the embarrassing 10-0 five-inning rout at Denison in the first meeting, and the consequent changes that Samuels made.
“We pushed (the players) harder,” Samuels said. “We figured out that they needed to have consequences for mistakes. They needed to learn how to fight harder. So our drills changed in practice to make sure they knew better than to just continue to give up — that they can always fight back and they can always win.”
Sophomore Jessica Bridges, who missed a few games early in the district schedule due to a knee injury and struggled the first time around against Denison, pitched a strong game on Friday, bouncing back from a leadoff home run and a scratched-out run in the fourth. Bridges retired 10 in a row before a one-out error in the top of the seventh led to three Lady Jacket runs.
Bridges also had a game-tying RBI single in the bottom of the first. Kaitlyn Bang accounted for the other two runs in the seventh with her single and error that scored Goodman, followed by a wild pitch that allowed Bang to score from third.
The rivalry finale was a good test for the Lady Cats as they go up against a Saginaw team that will be playing with a lot of emotion.
Saginaw’s coach, Hank Fulkerson, will be retiring at the end of the season. Fulkerson has coached and taught for 45 years, mostly in Tarrant County, and started Saginaw’s softball program in 2005. He has won more than 360 games in his career, including a Class 5A state championship in 1999 at Richland, where Samuels also would coach later.
“I played against him every year I was at Richland,” Samuels said. “He’s got some sneaky tricks up his sleeve. As a coach, I’m having to prepare for another coach as well, not just preparing my team.”
The Lady Rough Riders (20-9-1) emerged with the No. 2 seed in District 6-5A after a wild and crazy district race, losing out to first-year varsity program Haslet Eaton.
Saginaw ended the regular season with a walk-off single by senior Kenzie Wilson to edge crosstown rival Chisholm Trail, 5-4. Wilson finished 2-for-4 with two RBI, and cleanup hitter and fellow senior Kaylynn Bowden doubled and also drove in two.
Wilson also anchors the Saginaw infield at shortstop.
Starting pitcher Madison Ortiz allowed four runs on 12 hits, including a home run, but got the win. Ortiz, a sophomore, and junior Kayla Holubek have been Saginaw’s two primary starters in the circle.
“Defensively they’ve been very strong,” Samuels said. “If we put the ball in play, they’re going to be ready.”
Sherman and Saginaw have no official common opponents this season, but the Lady Cats did beat Argyle in a preseason scrimmage, 5-0, while Saginaw beat Argyle, 6-4, in the Granbury tournament on March 2.
In order to keep their season going, the Lady Cats will have to do what they’ve done the whole month of April to get to this point.
“Keep fighting,” Samuels said. “When Jessica got hurt and they realized that they still had to play hard and do the best they could do without their No. 1 pitcher, they learned a valuable lesson through the losses they got from that. They have fought hard ever since on and off the field. Even in the classroom they’re fighting hard.
“What makes coaching here so easy at times is they don’t sit back and (complain). They go hard all the time. They’re the hardest-working team.”