The young Mansfield softball team passed its first playoff test on Friday, making a lone run in the third inning stand up for a 1-0 victory over Temple. It was a one-game, winner-moves-on affair – something many of these young Lady Tigers were experiencing for the first time.
“There was definitely a lot of nerves,” head coach Jennifer Haltom said. “We’ve got a lot of young kids on this team, but we also have a lot of leadership on this team with our upperclassmen, and they did a great job keeping everybody calm and in the moment, taking it one pitch at a time and one inning at a time. It all worked out.”
Junior pitcher Casey Waterman earned the win by throwing a complete-game shutout, including six strikeouts, but it was a pair of sophomores who made some of the biggest plays of the night.
First, in the Lady Tigers’ half of the third inning, third baseman Kate Hale stepped to the plate with two outs and Bailee Baldwin at second. Hale barely got a piece of Lexi Smith’s pitch, and the ball dropped just a few feet in front of home plate. While the rest of the game seemed to suddenly grind into slow motion, Hale sprinted down toward first base, beating out an errant throw. All the while, Baldwin was trucking toward home plate for what would be the decisive run.
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“What I love about it, is that once she put the ball in play, that kid hustled down the line,” Haltom said. “She didn’t pout about not hitting it very far, but she got down that line and without that hustle we don’t win that ball game. That’s just something I’ve come to expect from Kate.”
Hale is one of the underclassmen that have come to represent this Lady Tigers club, which fielded just one senior in its lineup Friday night.
“It’s her first go-round on the varsity. She works extremely hard and has driven in a lot of big runs for us this year. She’s really solidified our defense there at the corner,” Haltom said of Hale. “It’s something we talk about all the time, that each opportunity you have to make the most of it. Kate’s done that for us all year.”
Another sophomore to step up Friday was outfielder Payton Simpkins. With a pair of Tem-Cats runners at first and second, Smith stepped to the plate for Temple and launched a drive toward left field. The ball appeared to be headed over Simpkins, but her retreating, tumbling catch surely saved one, if not two, runs.
“When I saw it hit off the bat, I definitely didn’t make the right adjustment,” Simpkins said. “When I saw it going, I just kind of stopped thinking and ran. You just kind of jump and you don’t think about it. Then when you catch it, it feels good. I felt the weight in my glove and it was a good feeling knowing that you’ve got it.”
An inning later, Simpkins again likely saved a run by making an overhead catch at full extension.
“Again, I was like ‘Oh, no,’” Simpkins said. “I just stopped thinking again and just jumped and caught it. You don’t really think when you make those catches, it’s just kind of a go-for-it thing.”
Protecting that one-run lead and having difficulty getting to Temple’s Smith, who retired 15 Mansfield batters via strikeout, the Lady Tigers allowed just a single base-runner over the final two innings to close out the game with little drama. Despite the tenuous lead, Waterman never doubted they could win a 1-0 game.
“I knew my team had my back,” she said. “I knew that if I gave them the shot to make plays that they would get it done.”
“It’s tough, especially with a bunch of young kids out here who have never really been in that situation,” Haltom said. “If you go look at our scores all year long, we’re not playing one-run ball games. We’re putting 10, 12, 15 runs on the board, so for our defense to knuckle down and to make things happen for us and for Casey to throw the way she did, it was just an outstanding job.”
As a junior, Waterman is actually one of the elder statesmen of the club, and as the pitcher helps set the tone for the team. She felt her teammates had a good mindset going in and handled every situation successfully.
“It wasn’t so much nerves as excitement,” Waterman said. “We were really excited. We knew we had one game – one shot. It was at home, so we knew we’d have a great fan base. We had really good practices all week, so we came into this confident. We came in here knowing it would be a tough game, it was going to be a battle. We only scored one run, but we played good defense and got the one run in and got the job done.”
The victory was another sign of growth from this team, which is turning into Haltom’s favorite in her years of coaching.
“As a coach, you always hope that you’re going to build on what you start with. We’re a young ball club and I think the one thing I’m most proud of is how we’ve come together as a team,” she explained. “This bunch is a shining example of that. We don’t have a superstar. We’ve got 16 girls that have a common goal that go out and work hard every single day and have really put it together on the field. This has been the best experience that I’ve had as a head coach. It’s just a great group of girls.”
The Tigers will next face Lewisville Hebron in the area round.