BELLS — There are very few times when the Lady Panthers have their backs against the wall. When you do what they have done the past three seasons — winning back-to-back state titles and 89 percent of their games — obstacles can be few and far between.
But the measure of a champion can be defined when it has to deal with pressure. And the core of these rosters has been flawless in that regard.
“I don’t think they know the meaning of the word ‘pressure,’” Bells head coach Kristina Stephens said. “It’s something you can’t teach. It’s that mindset. It’s routine and it should be routine at this point.”
The latest example came this past weekend when Bells was facing elimination in the third game of its series against Big Sandy Harmony. With seven innings to decide their season, the Lady Panthers came through once again. It made them 16-0 in a win-or-go home scenario since the start of the 2017 playoffs.
There will be no opponent where that mindset is needed more than ever as Bells (35-1) faces Emory Rains (30-1) in the Class 3A Region II final series at McKinney Boyd. Game 1 is on Wednesday; Game 2 is on Thursday and Game 3, if necessary, is on Friday with all the start times at 6:30 p.m.
The winner advances to the Class 3A state tournament and will play in a semifinal at either 3 or 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the University of Texas’ Red & Charline McCombs Field.
“We’re more power hitters and they use the short game more,” Stephens said. “It’s all about who’s going to have their off-game, who’s going to make the big mistake. It should be a really good series with two competitive teams going at it.”
Rains doesn’t have the hardware that Bells can claim but it has a talented group of underclassmen coming off a state tourney appearance after also shifting in realignment. The Lady Cats view that spot in Austin to be just as much theirs as the Lady Panthers think they belong there in chasing a third consecutive ring.
“That’s everybody’s goal, whether you’ve been there or not,” senior first baseman Chesney Blount said. “We take every year — it’s a clean slate. It’s great what we’ve done in the past but it doesn’t matter now.”
Added sophomore infielder and pitcher Alexis Tanguma, who transferred from Silo (Okla.) after a pair of state runner-up finishes in Oklahoma’s split-season format: “The girls were very welcoming. They’ve helped me not only on the field but in the school as well. You can see how close everybody is and we don’t want to let each other down.”
This enticing match-up almost didn’t happen but Bells was able to fend off Harmony’s challenge. After losing the middle game of the region semifinal series, 8-3, in a contest the Lady Panthers led 3-1 going to the sixth inning and with an 8-3 win in its pocket from Game 1, they made sure there was no doubt with a 10-0 victory in five innings to advance.
“The girls took it in stride,” Stephens said about the middle game’s result. “They hung their heads for about five seconds. Losses are lessons. They came back and did their job.”
Bella Smith hit a three-run homer, Cheyenne Floyd scattered three hits and four walks while striking out four, Tanguma was 2-for-2 with two RBI and scored twice, Jaiden Tocquigny doubled, drove in two runs and scored and Mia Moore was 2-for-3 and scored.
The Game 2 loss snapped a 38-game losing streak dating back to the 2018 postseason. And while the thought of an undefeated year would have been nice, the only thought now is for a 4-0 finish which would mean another trophy celebration.
Emory Rains has had just an impressive season as the Lady Panthers. And while Bells moved up from 2A to continue its success, the Lady Cats are having theirs after moving down from 4A, where they made the state semifinals before a 6-2 loss in 11 innings against Vernon.
That was the best season in school history by a wide margin, surpassing a region semifinal appearance in 1995. In fact, that ‘95 campaign was the last time Rains had a playoff victory before last season.
And like Bells, much of the core of that team is back after Rains lost just a pair of seniors to graduation.
The Lady Cats advanced to the region final with a 8-2, 10-2 sweep against Hughes Springs, which was the 3A state runner-up last season.
Chanlee Oakes, a sophomore, allowed an earned run on five hits with five strikeouts and no walks in the clincher while Alexis Kearney was 3-for-3 and a homer shy of the cycle with four RBI, Jasmine Mott was 3-for-4 with two RBI and scored and Presley McAree was 3-for-4 with a home run, two RBI and scored twice.
In the opener, Elissa Elliott was 3-for-4 with two doubles, Catrin Hoffman was 2-for-3 with a homer and two RBI, Mott was 2-for-4 with two doubles, drove in a run and scored and McAree was 2-for-5 and scored twice.
The only loss came during the Brenham Tournament in a 1-0 setback in six innings against Drippings Springs on the first weekend in March. Since then Rains has won 19 straight, including an area-round sweep against Bells’ districtmate Bonham, 8-1 and 10-6. For comparison, the Lady Panthers wins over Bonham were by 5-0 and 14-5 margins.
The other common opponent was Edgewood, which Bells swept, 6-1 and 12-1 in five innings, in the area round. Rains topped them, 10-0 and 18-0 both in five innings, in District 12-3A action.