Clinging to a 2-1 lead in the 2A Central Region title game, the Quitman Lady Bulldogs were one out away from claiming the victory before the Poyen Lady Indians rallied back and won 3-2 in extra innings. On Monday, the two teams linked up again in the Class 2A state championship game, with the contest concluding with a 3-2 score. This time, however, it would be the Lady Bulldogs as the victors, going on to defend their 2018 state title against the very team they defeated last season to hoist the gold.
Quitman junior outfielder Gracie Smith provided the Lady Bulldogs with their first base runner of the game after singling on an 0-2 count in the opening frame but was left stranded following a ground out from sophomore first baseman Kassie Rhodes and a fly out from senior pitcher Marley Johnson.
With two outs in the bottom half of the first, sophomore Gracen Murphy doubled to center to put a runner in scoring position for Poyen with two outs, however senior Kindi Puckett grounded out to Johnson to end the inning.
Both teams kept one another at bay despite Quitman getting a single from senior outfielder Trinaty Ellington in the second inning and a double from junior shortstop Autumn Johnson in the third, as Marley Johnson and the defense shut down the Lady Indians in the second and third, retiring six straight batters.
Poyen would put together a fourth inning that would result in the first run of the game being scored, as senior Alana Pumphrey doubled to center to set the table for Puckett, who exchanged places with her on an RBI double to put the home team on top 1-0. Puckett would eventually be caught stealing at third before classmate Lanie Bennings grounded out to freshman second baseman Maddie Thompson.
Quitman would get the bats rolling once again in the fifth thanks to hits from the bottom part of the hitting order, as freshman Jadie Langston singled before junior left fielder Lillie Webb got onboard with a single of her own, opening the door for Autumn Johnson to lay down a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners to second and third right before junior outfielder Gracie Smith ripped a single to left field to bring in Langston. Quitman took their first lead of the game in the very next at-bat, as Rhodes smacked a line drive to left for a sac fly to bring home Webb, who tagged up from third.
With one out in the bottom of the fifth, the biggest call of the game was made after Poyen freshman Kodee Batchelor was called out on offensive interference after making contact with Marley Johnson, who was prepared to make a play and catch Batchelor’s popup hit to first but was disrupted as soon as contact was made. Johnson brought the fifth frame to a close after Puckett grounded out to her in the next at-bat.
Both squads came up empty in the sixth, as Quitman had freshman third baseman Riley Drake pop out to the shortstop, Ellington grounded out to the pitcher and Thompson grounded out to second, with Pumphrey and Beaver both going down on strikes and junior Loren Austin drawing the third out on another offensive interference call.
Quitman tacked on another run with two outs in the seventh and final inning after Autumn Johnson found the gap in center for a double, making the trek to home plate after Smith singled on a hard grounder to left to make it 3-1.
The Lady Indians would not go away quietly, as junior Madison Wilfong walked to put the leadoff batter on, leading to Batchelor swinging for strike three and the first out. Puckett would reach on a fielding error that put runners on first and second before Beaver grounded into a fielder’s choice that sent Wilfong back to the dugout on a forceout at third, however Murphy singled on a grounder that just got by Autumn Johnson to score Puckett and close the gap to one run at 3-2.
Poyen applied more pressure after Pumphrey drew a walk to load the bases, bringing junior Kyla Puckett to the plate, who would look at strike one from Rhodes before fouling off the next two pitches, swinging at strike three to bring the game to a close and send the Lady Bulldogs to victory lane for the second straight season, becoming the first 2A school to defend their state title since Spring Hill accomplished the feat in 2015 and 2016, hauling in the third crown in this history of Cleburne County after West Side won the 2006 Class 1A title.
Marley Johnson was selected as the most valuable player of the state tournament, striking out two while allowing only one walk and three hits in four innings of work. Rhodes, who was last season’s MVP, came on to strike out four, walk three and surrender two hits in three innings. Smith led the way from the dish with a 3-for-4 performance, driving in two runs. Autumn Johnson went 2-for-3 with one run scored, while Langston and Webb each scattered a hit and reached home for a run. Puckett suffered the loss in the circle for Poyen, striking out four and allowing eight hits. Murphy went 2-for-4 from the dish.
“It feels amazing to go out on such a high like this,” exclaimed Johnson. “I’m so proud of these younger girls and how they stepped up. We had two options coming into the game. I knew if I couldn’t get the job done, I had Kassie there to come in and help me out if I needed it. I just love everyone on this team and going to miss them so much.”
“I just can’t describe this feeling,” stated Quitman head coach Stephanie Davis, who has now led the Lady Bulldogs to two state championships in just three short years. “I was asked what to say, and I just don’t know what to say. It’s an indescribable feeling. Just the grit and the adversity this team faced all year long, to overcome that and get back here and win says a lot about their character and their drive.”
Davis credited the work ethic of her pitching staff as a key component in helping the team get back to the big stage.
“There’s no kid who has worked as much as she has as a Lady Bulldog,” Davis said of Johnson. “She earned it. Day in and day out, she constantly works on her game, and Kass is right there with her. They are a great pair.”
A long drive to Bogle Park on a Monday morning did not stop the Bulldog faithful from showing up and showing out, painting the Lady Razorback facility in white in support of their team. This is a fan base that has seen the girls’ athletic program continue to turn it up a notch since the 2016-17 school year, with six state titles being brought back to Quitman in that span, including a title in basketball in 2017, two in cross country in 2016 and 2017, one in track and field in 2017 and now two in softball in 2018 and 2019.
“You just can’t find a better community than the one we have.” said the 28-year old Greenbrier and University of Central Arkansas graduate. “It means the world to the girls knowing they are there every game and considering how loud and proud we are as a team.”
Quitman graduates Marley Johnson, Trinaty Ellington and Alyssa Harrison and will return seven of nine starters in 2020, also adding some talented freshmen into the mix. Among those returning include: the junior quartet of Autumn Johnson, Gracie Smith, Lillie Webb and Carsyn Broadaway, the lone sophomore in Kassie Rhodes, and the freshman five-piece tandem of catcher Taylor Hooten, Riley Drake, Maddie Thompson Jadie Langston and Katelyn Black.
“We definitely have some things to work on between now and then, but we hope to be right back here next season.”
The Lady Bulldogs finish with a 29-5 overall record, hauling in a title in the Debra McMaster Tournament before running the table in the 2A-5 North Conference and winning the district tournament and taking a runner-up finish in the regional tournament.
Poyen finishes 2019 with a 28-2 mark, with their only other blemish coming at the hands of Class 1A state champion Taylor. The loss snapped a 22-game winning streak.