Nobody even dared to argue with the North Central Regional at Liberty Park. The numbers were just too strong.
Of the eight teams in the field, four represented the top four ranked teams in the final Alabama Sports Writers Association softball poll: 1. Ragland; 2. Lynn; 3. South Lamar; 4. Parrish.
And the numbers didn’t lie, either. After each picked up two wins, Ragland and South Lamar, who took care of Parrish and Lynn, respectively, meet in today’s winner’s bracket finals at 8 a.m.
While the Lady Purple Devils definitely respected their competition, it was tough to really phase the defending state champions.
In preparation for this time of the year, Ragland beefs up its regular season schedule. And that was evident as they looked across Liberty Park.
“The only teams we play our size are the teams the ones the Athletic Association makes us play,” Ragland coach Jonathan Nix said. “You look over there and there’s Locust Fork, Moody, Springville — having played those teams the ones in higher classifications have a lot to do with the maturity level of this team.”
All total, 13 of the 26 games Ragland has played this season were against teams that qualified for one of the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s regional tournaments.
Nix attributes that tough schedule to the reason Ragland plays this morning in the winner’s bracket finals. And the reason they were able to come through today unscathed.
Ragland needed little help in the first game of the day, flexing their muscles early against Jacksonville Christian. The Lady Purple Devils scored 11 runs in the first inning before rolling to a 15-0 four-inning run-rule win.
But against fourth-ranked Parrish, Ragland had to pull deep down from all its past experience to pull out the 2-1 eight-inning win.
With two outs and a full count in the eighth inning, freshman Kailey Echols hit a bomb over both the temporary and the permanent fence to give the Lady Purple Devils the win. Sommar Wright worked all eight innings, allowing three hits and striking out five to pick up the win.
After scoring in the first inning, Ragland had carried a 1-0 lead into the sixth before Parrish scratched the scoreboard.
Echols led the way going 2-for-3, while Wright was 1-for-3 and Madison Oliver was 1-for-4.
In the first game, four players accounted for three RBIs apiece — Oliver, Emily Church, Wright and Echols. Oliver had two doubles and a triple.
Nix admitted he doesn’t have to tell his mature team — that only has two seniors — very much in preparation. He said he kept the message simple as they track back-to-back regional tournament and state title.
“I just told them, ‘Stay focused and play like it’s your last,’” he said.
But because of the way Ragland played today, in the double elimination format, its still got one loss before that feeling is actually true.
Bran Strickland is the sports editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3570 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland