By JOEL COLEMAN
HATLEY – Call it an upset. Call it destiny. Call it whatever you will.
No matter your explanation for what transpired Saturday in Hatley, the East Webster softball team is headed to the Class 2A state championship.
Up against a team that beat them twice in the regular season and relegated East Webster to runner-up status from Region 3, the Wolverines' notched a 4-3 victory Saturday to polish off a 2-0 series sweep over the Tigers and earn a North State championship to boot.
"It was so sweet to beat (Hatley) when it counted," said East Webster head coach Meleah Brown. "I told the girls coming in that they had to forget that Hatley beat us twice during the year, because this is when it counts."
It wasn't without struggle at times, but Brown's team heeded the words of their first-year leader.
Then again, resilience is a quality that the Wolverines have already proven they possess having dealt with the fallout of the April 27 storms that destroyed their campus.
That never-give-up demeanor was on grand display Saturday.
"Really this wasn't our best game," said Brown. "Defensively, offensively, pitching-wise, we weren't on top of our game, but luckily we pulled the win out."
The triumph puts East Webster (20-6) up against Enterprise-Clarke for the state crown in a best-of-three series that begins Friday at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland.
While East Webster fans can make their plans for next weekend's action now, Saturday's game left the Wolverines' faithful holding their collective breaths until the final out settled in center fielder Michaela White's glove.
Before that point, Wolverines starting pitcher Swayze Hollenhead found herself wiggling in and out of jams all afternoon long as the Tigers tried to battle back from a hole that they dug themselves with a critical error in the first inning.
In that frame, Hatley starting pitcher Lesley Hudson looked to be on her way to pitching around a situation that saw East Webster's Autumn Frost and Hollenhead both in scoring position with just one out.
Hudson struck out Bailey Williams to record the second out of the inning, but before Hudson could wiggle completely out of trouble, Montana Spencer laced a line drive to left field that bounced off the glove of Hatley left fielder Lauren Sloan, allowing Frost and Hollenhead both to score..
In the home half of the inning, Hatley cut East Webster's lead to 2-1, but things could have been worse for the Wolverines.
The Tigers sent seven batters to the plate and recorded three total hits, but mustered just one run as Hollenhead was able to avert disaster by leaving the bases loaded.
Such was the case for much of the day.
"Fate was on our side for sure," said Brown.
Never was that more obvious than later in the game.
With East Webster clinging to its 4-3 lead in the bottom of the sixth, Hatley's DeAnna Wright stepped to the plate with two outs and laced a shot into left-centerfield.
As the ball rolled towards the outfield fence, Wright was already around second base and almost certainly assured of a game-tying inside-the-park home run.
It wasn't meant to be.
The ball rolled through an opening at the bottom of the fence, relegating Wright to a ground-rule double.
Back in the infield, Hollenhead was counting her blessings.
"I was saying 'Dear Lord, thank you,'" said Hollenhead. "I didn't know what was happening. I just saw (left fielder Katie Gordon) and she wasn't getting the ball. When I saw what was going on, I just ran up to the umpire and started yelling 'it went under the fence, it went under the fence.'"
Hollenhead left Wright stranded at second courtesy of an inning-ending ground out.
While Hatley couldn't seem to catch an offensive break, East Webster put together much of its offense in the middle portion of the game courtesy of Williams.
In both the third and fifth innings, Williams came through with two-out, run-scoring hits to keep the pressure on the Tigers.
Williams attributed her clutch hits to her first-inning strikeout that nearly cost her team their first-inning runs.
"(The strikeout) made me mad," said Williams. "It made me want to do better at the plate and in the field."
As luck would have it, it was also Williams, from her first base position, who recorded the opening out in the bottom of the seventh.
With Hatley down to its last gasps, Courtney Roberts slapped a grounder to Williams who picked up the ball and just beat Roberts to the bag.
Two batters later, a fly ball off the bat of Katy Duling fell into the glove of White, officially punching East Webster's ticket to Mississippi high school softball's grandest stage.
"At first, I was like 'do I got this? Do I got it?'" said White of her catch. "Then, when it hit my glove, that's when all that work that we've been doing paid off. It felt great."
White's catch set off a giant East Webster celebration. In the midst of it all was Hollenhead, who had just recorded her sixth-straight playoff pitching win to guide East Webster to this point.
"We have worked so hard this year," said Hollenhead. "And it's completely different from last year. Last year we didn't even make the playoffs and now we're here. We've got (Brown), a first-year coach, taking us to state. And we're doing all this for the community...I'm just speechless."
The Wolverines' North State title is indeed sweet medicine to still-ailing, storm-ravaged Cumberland.
As the Wolverines use the events of that destructive late-April day as motivation for their playoff run, the school that now jokingly refers to themselves as East Webster University due to the school's current usage of the Wood College campus, now rests just two wins shy of a state championship.
White says the season has been an incredible ride already and she can't wait for the next leg of the journey.
"At the first of the season, we all decided that we were going to play with heart," said White. "Then, when our heart got broken (due to the storm damage), we just decided right then we were dedicating our playoffs to our school and our community.
"We're not going to give up no matter what. We're going to dig deep, play with our heart and let our heart show out through our games."
Brown echoed White's sentiments, saying that her club's attitude is what is responsible for pushing the Wolverines all the way to state.
"They just all wanted it," said Brown. "They had heart and played with heart. That's all it was."