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Softball | General | 5/3/2022

Softball Scout Journal: May 3

Jerry Miller     
Photo: Texas Lutheran Softball
The softball playoff season in Texas has a different feel and an atmosphere that is rarely matched in the sport regardless of the level of play, competition, venue, or the day of the week games are played.

Three phenomenally successful programs entered the playoff season with singular intent. Each started their march this week to what they hope will end in a championship. These noteworthy clubs – high school teams Bullard (4A) and Frisco Heritage (5A), as well as Texas Lutheran University, the nation’s No. 3-ranked NCAA Division-III team – won, and will continue playing this week, in the case of Bullard and Heritage and next for TLU when the NCAA playoffs begin. The most exciting four-to-six weeks the game annually offers is upon us. All three of these teams were challenged this past week, and each responded like championship teams usually do.

Bullard Panthers
Seen on Wednesday, April 27

Even native Texans, especially those not from East Texas, may have trouble telling you where Bullard is. Located in Smith County, Bullard is just a stone’s throw south and east of Tyler. Bullard High School plays conference 4A athletics and their softball program is recognized as being one of the very best in the state. They are a dominant force in 4A, Region II. They have won 32 games this year. The district 16-4A champs played Pittsburgh, out of 15-4A, in the opening bi-district round at Tyler Legacy HS on Wednesday in front of a standing room-only crowd that wrapped completely around the stadium and was 8-10 deep in places.

The Panthers were outstanding in their Game 1 victory over Pittsburgh, run-ruling the Pirates 11-1, in a fashion that speaks volumes about this 30+ win club. They are led by two seniors at the top of their lineup, center fielder Berlyn Grossman and right fielder Kaylee Paul. These two gifted athletes set the tone and the rest of the Bullard club feeds off their actions. The Panthers three-hole hitting second baseman, junior Callie Bailey, is also an impact player and the Panthers emotional leader.

Game 2 in the best of three series was a bit different, as the Panthers had to battle to come out on top of an inspired Pittsburgh team, who was led by perhaps the best athlete on the field in junior third baseman and left-handed hitter, Elyssia Lemelle. Pittsburgh, to their particularly good credit, had re-grouped after their Game 1 defeat and gave Bullard all they could handle. The Panthers, poised and proven, broke open a scoreless tie in the late innings to prevail.

Like most outstanding fastpitch teams at any level, Bullard has a presence in the circle. Their two pitchers, junior Hadi Fults, who pitched the Panthers to the Game 1 win, and sophomore Anistyn Foster, who twirled the impressive Game 2 shutout, work fast and throw strikes. The only hitter in the Pittsburgh lineup who solved the Bullard pitching staff was the aforementioned Lemelle, who had a couple of impressive extra-base knocks.

The Panthers play solid defense. They make the routine plays look pedestrian. There is a reason this team is currently ranked No. 1 in the state, as they make few mistakes when the other team is hitting. More than anything, this Bullard squad never loses their poise. The moment appears to never be too big for this well-coached club.

At the dish, BHS overwhelms opponents. They are selective and rarely expand the zone. They seemingly always have runners on base, and they are an aggressive group running the bags. They forced Pittsburgh into enough defensive mistakes to make a difference in both games, especially in the tight game two contest that Bullard won 4-0.

Now it is off to the Area round next weekend, where Bullard will tangle with a solid Brownsboro club in a best-of-three series that begins Friday evening in Grand Saline. Only battle-tested contenders are left, as is generally the case when the calendar turns to May. Bullard will certainly be favored to capture the Area round series against Brownsboro. They are also the odds-on choice to represent Region II in Austin in a few weeks. Of course, no team is immune from a determined upstart opponent, but Bullard appears to have all the necessary ingredients to play for the state championship at the University of Texas in June.

Frisco Heritage Coyotes
Seen on Thursday, April 28

There is somewhat of a debate, depending on which part of the state one might query, as to which 5A softball program is the best in Texas this spring. Those from the suburban north Houston area of Montgomery, would offer up undefeated and nationally-ranked Lake Creek. The folks from Frisco in the north Dallas area would argue that Heritage HS, the No. 2-ranked 5A team in Texas from the Frisco ISD, is unquestionably the best. Lake Creek will state they are undefeated, No. 1 ranked, and have earned their place at the top of the pecking order. Heritage could counter that their one loss is due to playing a highly-competitive schedule strewn with the best overall teams in the top 5A region in the Lone Star. Both could be right.

Heritage (Region II) and Lake Creek (Region III) both won their opening bi-district rounds and are seemingly on a collision course that could see them meeting up in Austin in June. Heritage took on surprisingly tough Lovejoy HS in the first of a best-of-three set Thursday night in Lucas. Paced by junior right-handed pitcher Jensin Hall, Heritage took the opening contest, 4-1. Hall was supported on offense by senior Elyse LeClair’s RBI double and sophomore Ahna VanMeter’s no-doubt two-run dinger that broke a 1-1 tie in the fifth inning.

The Leopards from Lovejoy didn’t go quietly, as the LHS “do everything” shortstop, junior Hannah Harvey, ran into a 60+ mph Hall heater on the inner half and drove it well over the left field fence to tie the game early on at one. But, Hall, the power throwing 6-foot-1 righty who is committed to Dartmouth, had more than enough to thwart any notions of a Lovejoy upset. Heritage finished the bi-district sweep with a 11-7 slugfest on Friday.

Heritage advances to take on W.T. White out of the Dallas ISD in a one game, winner-take-all Area contest. Lake Creek, who appears focused and ready to take on all comers, defeated Magnolia in the first round of the Region III playoffs and advances to play Pflugerville Weiss in a best-of-three series that gets underway Saturday.

If both Heritage and Lake Creek survive their respective regions and make it to the University of Texas for the state championships, their eventual matchup could be epic.

Texas Lutheran University Bulldogs
Seen from April 29-May 1 at the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament

The 2022 SCAC Tournament championship trophy is on the bus south, headed to a remarkably familiar place – the case at Texas Lutheran in Seguin. The road to and through the conference tournament was challenging, but never really in doubt, as the Bulldogs, currently the nation’s No. 3-ranked NCAA Division-III team and the No. 1-ranked Region X squad, captured their eighth SCAC Tournament championship in a row. TLU has not lost a tournament game since 2016. They are 23-1 all-time in SCAC tournament play.

While the club was at UD for the 2022 tournament, they also picked up some SCAC regular season hardware in ceremonies on Saturday. They secured their eighth regular season trophy in a row. The ‘Dogs have won 62 straight conference games. Since TLU became a part of the SCAC, they are 173-3 in regular season play and are 196-4 overall, counting tournament play. That is a .980 clip. Can you say DYNASTY?

During ceremonies on Saturday, right-handed pitcher Ashlyn Strother, a sophomore from Seabrook, who tied the TLU school record this spring with 21 victories, picked up the conference Pitcher of the Year award, while senior Casey Martin, the Bulldogs three-hole hitting second baseman from Pearland, garnered the SCAC MVP trophy.

Sydney Ouellette, a sophomore pitcher and accounting major from Corpus Christi who is a standout hurler in her own right, was the SCAC academic award winner, as well as the recipient of the Elite 19 award for having the highest GPA in the conference tourney.

In addition to the well-deserved individual player accolades, the Bulldogs were well-represented on the all-conference teams. Earning First-Team recognition was senior team captain and two-time All-American left fielder Kelly Jurden from Brenham. Joining Kelly on the first team were the aforementioned Casey Martin and Ashlyn Strother. The Bulldogs' standout junior catcher from Sugar Land, Sarah Metzer, who may be the top D-III catcher in the land, was also named to the first team. A sophomore and the ‘Dogs dependable first baseman, Laura Hernandez from Missouri City, and first-year sensation and shortstop Faith Hernandez from Dinuba, Calif. were also named to the SCAC First-Team.

Named Second-Team All-SCAC were players who had seasons that would typically garner First-Team recognition. Sophomore outfielder and left-handed pitcher Madison Johnson from Round Rock, senior outfielder Chassety Raines from Spring, sophomore third baseman Brandalyn Dee from Cibolo, and right-handed pitcher Sydney Ouellette were all recognized for their outstanding seasons.

Receiving Honorable Mention recognition were junior DP/Utility Bailey Hudgeons from Dripping Springs and junior right-handed pitcher Amanda White from Lockhart.

In between all of the recognition ceremonies that took place before and after tournament games, the Bulldogs managed to win three straight contests. Their SCAC opponents didn’t just play “give up” either. Texas Lutheran saw inspired play from a couple of teams who knew they had to win the tournament to advance to the NCAA playoffs. The two teams that TLU matched up against played like there was no tomorrow because for them, there wasn’t.

Schreiner University from Kerrville gave TLU all they could handle in the opening round, as the “Dogs rode the strong right arm of SCAC Pitcher of the Year Ashlyn Strother to a 1-0 complete game victory that wasn’t decided until the conference MVP, Casey Martin, drove home the game’s only run in the bottom of the eighth inning. Strother was masterful, allowing only three hits and surrendering but one walk, while striking out 10. She was as usual, laser-focused, stoic, and dominant.

As junior catcher Sarah Metzer said after the game, “It wasn’t always pretty, but we hung in there and made plays when we needed to.”

The ‘Dogs take their cues from their senior leadership group of Kelly Jurden, Chassety Raines, and Casey Martin, who collectively stated, “It’s all about handling the pressure of the situation and making plays.”

These three, along with Metzer, know all about that, as they have rings from the 2019 national championship season.

In the SCAC semifinals, Trinity University from San Antonio battled TLU to the bitter end, but the Bulldogs got a great effort in the circle from their two standout pitchers and received a timely knock from sophomore Madi Johnson to pull out a well-earned 2-1 victory in nine innings. Sydney Ouelette pitched 7 1/3 brilliant innings, allowing only four hits and an earned run, to a determined Trinity team that received a gutty performance from their senior right-handed pitcher, Cat Patterson.

Sarah Metzer, along with Madi Johnson, picked up two hits apiece and were instrumental in the winning run crossing the plate in the bottom of the ninth. Ashlyn Strother picked up the win, going a1 2/3 innings, allowing only one hit, while striking out three.

Johnson, following the game, was all about putting the team first.

“We just keep fighting for each other," she said. "Yes, I wanted to be at the plate in the last inning, but my hit would not have meant anything unless the people in front of me did their jobs.”

Ouellette and Strother, who have remarkably similar personalities, know that sometimes, especially in big games, they have to stay calm and do their jobs.

With their hard-fought and well-earned semifinal win, the Bulldogs moved into the championship finals. Trinity, who bested the University of St. Thomas 10-9 on Saturday night, earned the right to play TLU on Sunday.

TLU’s bats came to life on Sunday afternoon, as the ‘Dogs scored five runs on six official hits. There were, unquestionably, another two or three knocks that could have been scored differently, that would have upped TLU’s hit total, but the only stat that the TLU staff and players were genuinely interested in was the “W." Stats aside, the Bulldog bats came to life against Trinity as the TLU club won 5-1 in a game that really wasn’t that close.

Once again, Head Coach Wade Wilson and his outstanding coaching staff received yeoman’s efforts from their pitchers. The order was reversed on Sunday as Ashlyn Strother started and went 4 2/3 innings, allowing six hits to the free-swinging Tigers and one unearned run. As per usual, Strother pounded the strike zone, punching out seven, while not allowing a walk. She emptied the tank and handed the ball over to her pitching cohort, Sydney Ouellette, who dominated the last 2 1/3 innings setting the never-say-die Tigers down in order.

TLU received offensive contributions from a number of players, most notably senior Kelly Jurden, who was back to her usual self, getting on base and creating havoc. The ‘Dogs also got big hits from junior Bailey Hudgeons and senior Chassety Raines.

TLU has checked their first two boxes on their way to the playoffs. With the grind of the regular season and conference tournament out of the way, the 38-4 Bulldogs can now truly focus on their favorite time of the year, the NCAA Regionals. Selection Sunday is a week away. Spring Semester finals are over. TLU can rest up and concentrate on the details, as they prep for another run at a National Championship. They are hopeful to start their journey to the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem, Virgina, site of the NCAA D-III finals, by hosting a Regional in two weeks at Morck Softball Field at Ed Kruse Stadium in Seguin.

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