ALLEN — The Gunter Lady Tigers knew they had to win the coin flip to determine their match-up with the Bells Lady Panthers was a winner-take-all contest instead of a series.
When facing a team that has won two straight state championships, your odds are better to beat them once to advance instead of twice. The problem for Gunter was one which has plagued every one of Bells’ opponents this season.
No one has yet to beat them at all.
The Lady Panthers kept that streak going as Bella Smith was 3-for-4 and a home run shy of the cycle with four RBI in an 11-3 victory over the Lady Tigers in a Class 3A Region II quarterfinal matchup on Friday night.
“I think it’s a different mentality with one game. We talked about it like the state tournament — you lose and you’re done,” Bells head coach Kristina Stephens said. “These girls will roll with the punches. They have so much experience and they just love to play softball.”
Bells (33-0) will face Big Sandy Harmony, which swept New Boston, in the region semifinals this week. The Lady Panthers broke the school mark for victories, previously set during their 32-3 run to the 2017 state title, and reached the fourth round for the fourth straight season.
The Lady Panthers have scored at least 11 runs in four of their five playoff games, with an aggregate score of 57-8.
Olivia Eft was 2-for-3 and drove in a run for Gunter (26-7), which had its best season since 2012 — the only time the Lady Tigers advanced past the third round. All this came after Gunter did not make the playoffs a year ago, doubled its win total and earned an undefeated District 9-3A title.
“This is now the stepping stone,” first-year Gunter head coach Leigh Anne Budd said. “We have to continue to build and get better every year. That’s the goal.”
Bells broke the game open with a four-run fifth after Gunter had put up runs in the third and fourth innings. Cheznie Hale singled and a pair of wild pitches put her at third and she scored on Jalen Hartline’s single up the middle.
With two outs and a runner at second, Gabby Smith was intentionally walked and Alexis Tanguma hit a dribbler down the third-base line, which pitcher Elizabeth Schroeter fielded in fair territory to load the bases.
Gabby Smith, who walked in all four at-bats and scored three times, took a wide turn around second, drawing a throw and allowing the lead runner, Jaiden Tocquigny, to scamper home. Smith went to third and with the ball not in the circle, she raced home as well to get the Lady Panthers to double digits.
“You don’t ever feel safe in the playoffs,” Stephens said. “Gunter’s a really good team. They were playing well.”
Cheyenne Floyd had an RBI single to make it an 11-3 advantage. She was two-for-4 with two RBI and scored.
The Lady Tigers continued to chip away with a run in the fifth inning to pull within four. Abby Gilbreath walked with one out and Schroeter followed with an infield single to third. The runners move up on a two-out wild pitch and Gilbreath scored when another throw ended up at the backstop.
“We fought every inning. We were chipping away,” Budd said. “That’s all I can ask, be competitive every inning. We were well prepared but they outplayed us. They can really hit.”
After leaving a runner on base in the second and third innings, including one a third in the second, Gunter was able to push across a run in the fourth. The frame didn’t get off to a promising start despite a walk by Taylor Boddie and a single to right from Beth Gilbreath to put runners at the corners. Boddie tried to score on a wild pitch but Mia Moore recovered in time to get the ball to Floyd for a tag on a close play at the plate for the first out.
Eft came through with a two-out RBI single to make it a 7-2 deficit for the Lady Tigers.
The Lady Panthers scored four times in the second inning to give them a six-run advantage.
Bells loaded the bases with one out – Victoria Azevedo was hit by a pitch while Gabby Smith and Tanguma walked. Schroeter nearly escaped the jam with a foul out off first but Bella Smith cleared the bases as she doubled to left center.
An error in foul territory off third kept Moore’s at-bat alive and she reached on an infield single to short that scored Smith, who never stopped running. Hale dunked in a double near the left-field line before Eft robbed Chesney Blount of extra bases and the Lady Panthers of at least two more runs with a diving catch in right field.
Bells had an immediate response after falling behind before its first at-bat. Gabby Smith opened the frame with a walk and despite getting caught in a rundown, she avoided a tag at second and then stole third on the play when no one covered the bag.
Floyd ripped a one-out RBI single to center and Bella Smith drove an RBI triple into the right-field corner. Hale reached on a two-out error to make it 3-1 but the Lady Panthers ran themselves out of anything else on a double steal with the final out at the plate.
Gunter scored in the top of the first when Schroeter plated the run with a high chopper past the circle that Gabby Smith had to range on the other side of the bag for to get the second out of the inning. Hayden Fox came around on a leadoff walk, sacrifice to second, wild pitch to third and the groundout.