BELLS — Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown but the Lady Panthers know the most important thing is they are still wearing it.
As the defending state champions, Bells holds the hardware until someone takes it from them. Despite strong challenges each of the last two weeks, the Lady Panthers' quest for consecutive titles remains intact.
“We do have a lot of pressure but this team always goes out and plays our hardest,” senior catcher Ashley Sloan said. “I think this team has a lot of heart. When we're in a tough position, we know what it takes to win.”
Weaving in three freshman starters on the infield after losing four key seniors from the best season in school history hasn't been entirely seamless — the team has lost four times as many games as 2017 along the way to state — but the Lady Panthers continue to show an amazing ability in pressure situations.
“We had growing pains. We had new faces and it took some time getting used to playing with each other,” Bells head coach Kristina Stephens said. “And they came together really well. It's really hard to get back to this place and to do it with four new faces in the lineup, it's a great accomplishment. Win or lose, they have nothing to hang their heads about.”
There are at least two more victories needed to meet the ultimate goal once again, starting as Bells (26-8) faces Albany (26-5) in a Class 2A state semifinal at noon on Wednesday at the University of Texas' Red & Charline McCombs Field.
“There's a target on our backs. It's a good thing though,” Stephens said. “As a coach you put the pressure on yourself to do the best we can and get the girls as far as we could. They don't want to be done. They keep finding ways to get things done.”
The winner will face either Normangee (30-4) or Woden (24-6) for the championship at 3 p.m. on Thursday. Normangee is at state for the first time while Woden was a semifinalist last spring and lost to Shiner.
“Last year we didn't think about winning a state championship. We just didn't like losing,” senior left fielder Hali Williams said. “We went out each game and each round not wanting to lose. We have as much talent as last year. But it was the meshing that needed to happen.”
Bells survived as the Region II champion by winning a double-header against Crawford after dropping Game 1 of the series. The Lady Panthers won 6-1 in Game 2 before needing 11 innings to advance with an 11-7 victory. Crawford had tied Game 3 with a six-run bottom of the sixth inning and then scored again in the bottom of the seventh to send the game to extra innings.
Chesney Blount reached on an error that scored a run and Gabby Smith hit a three-run homer later in the 11th to provide the winning margin.
The week prior Bells was pushed to a Game 3 when Bosqueville earned the Game 2 win. The Lady Panthers were down 3-0 after two innings before rallying for the 7-4 victory.
Since the start of the 2017 postseason, Bells is 12-0 in elimination games and 6-0 in those contests this spring.
“We don't give up until the game is over,” Williams said. “When there's a chance for us to get knocked out, we know what we have to do. We give it everything we have.”
Of course the biggest win in those situations was the championship victory over two-time defending champion Shiner when the Lady Panthers scored five runs as they down to their final out to pull out a 7-6 victory. If you can handle that pressure, most other situations don't seem as daunting. And it inspired those not yet on the team.
“All those freshmen were sitting in the stands and said 'we'll be back next year,'” Stephens said. “They were up to that challenge.”
Albany is making its third appearance at the state tournament and its first since 2013, when it lost in what was known as the 1A semifinals against another Texoma opponent, Sam Rayburn. In 2011 the program also finished as a semifinalist.
The Lady Lions have yet to lose in eight postseason games so far and enter the final four off a sweep of Petrolia, 5-3 and 21-17, in the Region I final series.
In the series opener, Albany had a 5-0 lead after three innings. Caitlyn Holson was 2-for-4, drove in a run and scored twice, Elia Hebel was 2-for-3 and drove in a run, Baley Green was 2-for-4 and drove in a run and Reyna Garcia was 2-for-4.
In Game 2, Albany was one strike away from a 16-1 run-rule before Petrolia scored 10 times in the fifth. After the Lady Lions went up 20-11, Petrolia made it 20-17 in the sixth inning.
Hebel was 4-for-4 with two doubles, a grand slam and eight RBI, Garcia was 2-for-4 with two doubles and five RBI, Aubrey Moon was 2-for-3 with three walks, two RBI and four runs.
Albany, which is on an 18-game winning streak, has scored at least five runs in every playoff contest and 15 or more in five of them. In the regular season, the Lady Lions lost twice against Godley and Stephenville in addition to defeats to Clyde and Weatherford.
Garcia is 21-4 in the circle and also batting .561 while Hebel is hitting .625, Moon has a .595 average, Holson is at .556 and Lindsey Lucas is batting .513.
“They can hit the ball,” Stephens said. “Anyone's going to be good this time of year and you have to show up and play your best game. The team that plays their best game is usually the one who wins.”