There is a new team sitting atop the Region 3-AAAAA softball throne, as the Whitewater Lady Wildcats dethroned Starr’s Mill and won their second region title under head coach Robert Townsend.

Whitewater traveled six miles down the road into enemy territory. It is never easy to win at Panther Stadium, but the Wildcats were up to the task. In front of a packed house, the Wildcats went 12 rounds with the Panthers and took both games of the region championship doubleheader.

Both teams battled in a back and forth slugfest, but it was Whitewater’s “never say die” attitude that propelled them to victory. The Wildcats were down four runs in both games, but climbed back into contention. Raeghan Byrom crushed a game-winning solo home run in extra innings to win game one. Teammate Emma Vessell followed with a five-out save in game two to nail down the region.

With the sweep, the Wildcats are the region’s top seed in the state tournament, where they will face the fourth seed a region out of South Georgia. This is the team’s second region title in three years. Whitewater won in 2016, which was the first title under Townsend.

“We got great pitching from all our pitchers that came in,” Townsend said. “They did an outstanding job and all our hitters stepped up and got a big hit. It was outstanding job for the whole team. They were in the game the whole time.”

Emma Vessell starts on the mound against Starr’s Mill. (Staff Photos by Christopher Dunn)

Whitewater defeated Starr’s Mill 7-6 in game one. It was an instant classic that had the ebbs and flows of a big matchup. The Panthers jumped ahead 4-0 in the first inning behind RBI singles from Jolie Lester and Kate Ashmore. The big hit in the inning was a 2-run single from Paige Andrews off Vessell.

The four runs sent Vessell to the dugout looking for answers. Vessell quickly rallied herself after chewing on a Styrofoam cup for a minute. She vowed not to take her team out of the game and to keep the deficit close.

“After they got on me, I went into the dugout and said not again,” Vessell said. “There won’t be not another inning like that.”

With renewed confidence, Vessell matched Starr’s Mill starter Lili Backes down the stretch. She allowed just two runs over the final seven innings. She also struck out five batters and got great defense behind her.

At the plate, the Wildcats kept coming back. Katie Goss ignited the offense with a single in the third inning. She came around to score on a wild pitch as Whitewater tied the game with four runs in the frame. Lily Griffith provided the crucial hit with a 2-run double that drove in Kyye Ricks and Kyna Chaney. Griffith went 2-for-4 in game one and steadied the middle of the lineup against Backes.

Backes didn’t have her best stuff as Whitewater patiently waited on her fastball. They made solid contact and forced her to use her secondary pitches. As a result, they drew walks and scored some runs.

“You just got to go up there and hit the ball,” Griffith said. “You got to stay confident, not worry about anything. Yes, it is a lot of pressure. You just got to let it go and hit the ball.”

Whitewater added another run in the fifth inning, but Starr’s Mill quickly responded. Lauren Flanders led off with a single, but was thrown out at second base on a questionable call. The umpires did both teams no favors in the game, but each team had to battle through it.

With two outs, Ashmore got aboard with a single and came around to score when Backes drove her in. The run was sweet retribution for Backes after a tough third inning. The Panthers tied it back a 5-5.

In the sixth inning, Whitewater regained the lead again. This time, Alexys Buffington blasted a solo home run to center field to give Whitewater a 6-5 lead with three outs remaining.

Starr’s Mill fired right back with Backes at the plate. In the seventh inning, she smoked a RBI single to right field as Ashmore scored again to tie the game. After tying the game, Starr’s Mill had a great chance to take the lead. With the bases loaded and nobody out, the end was inevitable.

However, Byrom saved the game twice with strong defensive plays. She collected back-to-back ground balls and threw home for the out. This helped Vessell as she got Sydney Blair out and sent the game to extra innings.

“I knew I couldn’t let that run score,” Byrom said. “I had to get her out.”

Byrom saved her best for the eighth inning. She belted the game-winning home run to center field as Whitewater took a 7-6 lead. As she ran around the bases, a huge smile came across her face. She knew that the momentum had turned around.

“Before I stepped to the plate, I was going to swing as hard as I could, no matter where it was at,” Byrom said. “It felt really good because I had struggled in the games before. It was good to be back on beat.”

Vessell earned the win in the bottom of the seventh inning. She shut down Starr’s Mill as Whitewater took game one. Townsend was ecstatic as he felt the two home runs were the keys that drove his team to the region title.

“When they did that, it stepped up our game,” Townsend said. “The momentum went to our side, and I knew we had a chance to win the series at that point.”

Kate Ashmore slides in safe against Whitewater.

After a 30-minute break, game two began in a similar fashion. Starr’s Mill jumped out to an early 5-0 lead. Flanders collected an RBI single in the third inning to build momentum for the frame.

In the third, the Panthers got to Byrom as she worked on the mound. Starr’s Mill got four runs on four hits behind RBIs from Andrews, Backes, and Lea Duben, forcing Townsend to bring in Kate Flanagan for relief.

Flanagan got out of the inning and pitched two scoreless frames. The Panthers wouldn’t draw closer as the Wildcats hot bats took them home.

The Wildcat bats came alive in the bottom of the third. Byrom got some runs back with a 2-run double, driving in Ricks and Bailey Vessell, who got aboard via a walk and single.

Whitewater continued their offense in the fifth inning. They tied the game with three runs off Panthers starter Paige Andrews. It all started with a single from Ricks and a double by Griffith. After Ricks scored, Panthers committed three crucial errors.

The errors allowed Byrom to reach on a throwing error and Buffington to get into scoring position following a single. Both Griffith and Byrom scored as the game was tied again at 5-5.

With a chance at victory, Townsend gambled and turned to Emma Vessell to close it out. She needed to get six saves and hope the offense could claw out another run. She worked around two singles and a walk to set up Whitewater in the bottom of the sixth.

“We were going to do what we needed to win the game and stop it right here,” Townsend said.

After Ricks took a walk and stole a base, the Wildcats had a runner in scoring position. Two batters later, Griffith came through with the game-winning RBI single. The Wildcats had taken a 7-6 lead.

The bench erupted as Whitewater was three outs away from victory. Vessell took the mound in the seventh inning and put away Duben on a groundout to give the Wildcats the sweep.

“We were ready to play today,” Griffith said. “It is a big thing because we are going to state soon. Taking a region championship is good because teams are intimidated by you.”

After the game, Starr’s Mill head coach Mark Williamson tipped is cap to Whitewater. He was proud of his team and told them that a lot of softball is left.

“It was two good games and both teams played hard,” Williamson said. “Somebody had to win, and if you make the plays at the right time, you get the W. Give them props as they came back and battled.”

He also assured them that the season is not over. Starr’s Mill will play the winner of Ware County and Wayne County in the first round at home.

The Wildcats greet Alexys Buffington at home plate after her game one home run.

“We still got more ball to play and we got some seniors that want this bad,” Williamson said. “We want to be in Columbus and hopefully we can make that happen for them.”

Whitewater hopes to continue their momentum in the state playoffs as well. Townsend said they have been preparing for this all year. They train, practice, and prepare year around. The region championship is the first reward for their hard work. He insists that the team is not done yet with their goals.

“It shows our team has a lot of character as we kept fighting back when we got down,” Townsend said. “We were down five runs and we were down four runs. We just kept coming back and kept hitting the ball. They made the plays when they needed to.”

When asked how he was going to celebrate, Townsend was still deciding. One thing was for sure, he felt really good about getting the job done.

“We have been second place a bunch of years and I am tired of it,” Townsend jokes. “Our kids did an outstanding job.”


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