By Eric Sprott
CHAPIN — After riding the arms of Emily Williams and Makenzie Martin all season, logic suggested Seneca High School softball coach Rick Pate was going to go with one of the two in the circle with the Class 3A State championship on the line against Dillon on Saturday night.
But instead, Pate went outside the box, as he gave the ball to Ashlyn Brown — the Bobcats’ everyday third baseman who had pitched all of four varsity innings on the season coming into Saturday.
And what a call it was in the neutral-site contest at Chapin High School.
After escaping a bases-loaded jam with a strikeout to end the top of the first, Brown delivered in the clutch with a complete-game effort, while Lexie Ransom and Salihah-Ragwar Hayes combined to drive in three runs in the bottom of the fourth to power Seneca to a 3-1 victory to clinch its first State championship since 2006.
“The girls bought into what we do,” said Pate, who captured the first State championship of his 36-year coaching career with the win. “We lift weights year-round, we play, we compete as much as possible, and the girls just bought into the system, and it’s paid off.”
“That was the best feeling in the world,” Seneca senior Natalie Windham added of hoisting the championship trophy. “This will go down as one of the best days of my life for sure.”
In clinching their fourth State title in program history, the Bobcats (28-8) got a sterling effort from Brown, who allowed a hit and two walks in the opening inning. But from there, she allowed just five hits and one more walk the rest of the way, while she finished with seven strikeouts.
And to say getting the call surprised Brown would be an understatement — she nearly missed the final practice of the season on Friday for a driving lesson.
“I was sort of shocked,” Brown said. “I texted (Pate) saying I couldn’t make it to practice, and he told me I was pitching and that I had to be there, so I quit all my plans and went to practice to get ready for this game.”
“When I showed up at practice, I asked if Ashlyn was there, and they said she was the first one there,” Pate added with a smile.
And while the decision to go with Brown may have come as a surprise to some, Pate said it was a natural not only to give Dillon a different look in the final game of the best-of-three State championship series, but to also give Brown a chance to replicate the dominance she’s shown at practice.
“She had gotten to where we couldn’t hit her,” Pate said. “I marked that up in my brain and remembered, and I started talking to (pitching coach) Sydney (Smith) about using her some. We were really comfortable with what we had, but then this came where they’d seen the other two and had moments where they could hit them. We just wanted to give them something new.”
“I was stoked when I found out she was going to pitch, because when we go live in practice, she’s hard to time up,” Windham added. “I knew as soon as she get could get her nerves out, she was going to throw a great game.”
And as Brown settled in and found her groove, the Bobcats’ bats finally got going in the fourth after managing just one hit through three innings.
Back-to-back one-out singles from Brown and Campbell Crenshaw got things going, and Yaminah Ragwar-Hayes reached safely to load the bases after the Wildcats (25-10) failed to convert a fielder’s choice at third.
Then, with two outs, Ransom shot an 0-2 offering from Dillon starter Paige Sherman into centerfield for a two-run single to plate Adyson Stinnett — Brown’s courtesy runner — and Crenshaw for a 2-0 lead.
“I’m just thankful I had the opportunity to help my team,” Ransom said.
“Everybody overlooks the nine-hole hitter, and Lexie’s not a true nine-hole hitter,” Pate added. “She’s another leadoff, and when she comes up I feel really good if we’ve got runners on, because she gets a lot of hits.”
With Yaminah Ragwar-Hayes at third and Ransom at second following a Dillon error on Ransom’s single, Salihah-Ragwar Hayes drove home her sister on a single to left field to make it 3-0 before being thrown out at second to end the inning.
Dillon got one back in the top of fifth on a two-out RBI double from Abby Briston, but Brown was able to stand Wildcat runners at second and third to close the frame.
After two quick outs in the top of the seventh, Dillon brought the go-ahead run to the plate with runners on the corners, but Brown struck out Logan Grice looking to set off a massive Seneca celebration in the infield.
“I was shocked that I got the last out,” Brown said with a laugh. “It was a very fun but stressful night.”
“It really justifies all that we do with the weight room and open-season practices,” Pate added. “If we can be doing something, we’ll be doing it, and these girls have responded to that. They bought in, and that’s what makes this entire group special.”
Seneca 3, Dillon 1
DHS 000 010 0 — 1 6 3
SHS 000 300 x — 3 7 1
WP — Brown, 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 7 K
LP — Sherman, 6 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 0 BB, 2 K
DHS — Q. Wilson, 2-3, BB; Briston, 2-4, 2B, RBI
SHS — Windham, 2-3, 2B; Ransom, 1-1, 2 RBI; S. Ragwar-Hayes, 1-2, RBI
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