There’s a palpable buzz surrounding the Arlington Heights softball program these days, and it’s not just because they're the Lady Jackets.
It has everything to do, though, with how much moxie the team has displayed all season, particularly through a postseason run that will continue on to the state tournament after another exhilarating three-game series victory over the weekend.
Arlington Heights overcame a 10-3 loss to Lubbock Coronado in Game 1 of the Class 5A, Region 1 championship best-of-3 series at Abilene Christian University to win the next two (12-5, 3-1) and advance to the state tournament in Austin from May 30-June 2. It's the farthest a Fort Worth school has made it since Paschal reached the state semifinals in 2004, and the farthest any Arlington Heights school has ever gone.
“The feeling is incredible and it’s almost unreal,” said senior shortstop and Texas A&M Corpus Christi signee Ashleigh Sgambelluri. “I knew this team was good but I never pictured us going to state. This team is just so scrappy and we never lose hope and always keep our fight.”
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Heights (37-3-1) will face Richmond Foster (35-8-1) at 9 a.m. on Friday in the first 5A semifinal at McCombs Field. The second semi will feature Barbers Hill (39-6) vs. Forney (31-6) at noon.
“The feeling is unbelievable,” said sophomore pitcher Jalee McDonald, a Texas Woman’s University softball commit. “Since the beginning of the season I always knew we had an amazing team and that this was the year, if any, that we might actually have a shot at going all the way. Actually doing it, it feels like a dream.”
This was far from the first time Heights had to battle for its life this postseason. The Lady Jackets dropped Game 2 against Saginaw Boswell in the area round before squeaking by with a 4-3 win in rubber match. It was the first time since 1999 the program had advanced to the third round.
"Nothing fazes them," Heights head coach Mike Townsend said. "I'm serious. Nothing fazes these girls."
After sweeping Colleyville Heritage in that third round, Heights used some walk-off magic to beat Canyon in Game 1 of its regional semifinal. The Lady Jackets would go on to win Game 2, 4-3.
“I’m just glad to be a part of this team that has had a chance to make so much history,” McDonald said. “Our whole team is like a family, we fight and bicker but at the end of the day we all know how to take a step back and move on to the next play. We are such a close team and have such good chemistry and I believe this is part of the reason we have gotten this far. We work together and do what we need in order to win or lose as a team.”
This particular series didn't start out on the best foot for the Lady Jackets. Their game was supposed to start at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday but a two-hour rain delay pushed things back. They then had to sit around Abilene for a day, thinking about that defeat while Coronado went back for its graduation. Saturday finally arrived, and brought with it that familiar Texas heat.
"Saturday was so brutally hot. it was the hottest day I’ve pitched in, in a very long time," McDonald said. "I just went out there I tried to keep my cool for as long as I could. After winning the first game, having the break in between games really gave me the pause I needed to get back out there and pitch 7 more innings. I honestly don't know where all the energy I had came from. Despite that, I had it and I was determined do what I could to give us a shot and let my defense have my back. Coronado was a really good hitting team so I knew that I probably wasn’t going to be able to strike everyone out so my goal was to try my best to get pop outs and balls that my defense could make plays on."
Townsend said he never sensed any urgency in the group after Game 1. In fact, he said, the main thing they were worried about was staying over night in Abilene as opposed to going back home like they were scheduled to on Thursday.
"That's just the way they are.," he said. "That's just the way they are built. It's an amazing group."