Heading into the South Carolina Dixie softball state championship tournament, the Kershaw County Ponytails had an extremely large goal; that was to win the state and advance to the World Series in Hopkins, Texas which begins on Aug. 2.
KC had four returning players from the 12-girl squad which finished third in the state last year. The team was selected on May 28 and started practicing two and a half hours a day, five times a week. In addition, they played multiple scrimmages and five pre-all-star tourney games to prepare. Multiple girls took private pitching and hitting lessons to do whatever they could to improve. All the players knew the goal they were seeking would take a lot of sacrifice and dedication.
On Saturday, July 13, in the opening game of the state tournament, KC played District 1 champion Georgetown. KC had plenty of hitting to run-rule Georgetown, 19-2, in five innings. Kayley Lynch and Emaree Ray threw two innings each while Maren Cox worked the fifth frame. All players were productive at the plate to put Georgetown away.
A day later, the locals had to wait until 9:15 p.m. to start their game against a very strong Lancaster squad which featured multiple pitchers and some very talented hitters. Lancaster jumped out to a 2-0 lead after the first half inning. KC was able to take the momentum quickly back by scoring six runs in the bottom of the first to put pressure on Lancaster. Lynch was able to shutdown Lancaster in the second inning, and KC added two more runs to push the lead to 8-2. Both teams had a scoreless third inning but in the top of the fourth, Lancaster rallied and cut the lead to 8-7. With all of the pressure on KC’s young ladies in the bottom of the fourth, they were able to bat 10 players while scoring five runs to push the lead to 13-7. Ray, who closed out the fourth, was able to hold Lancaster to a run in the fifth. After a scoreless bottom for KC, it was 13-8 heading into the last inning.
Lancaster opened the sixth with a double. KC got the first out on a ground ball to Cox at shortstop, who got the runner out at first. Lancaster scored with a hit to right making it 13-9. Ray was able to strike out the next batter to get KC within an out from victory. The next player singled to right to put runners at first and second with two outs and the leadoff batter coming up to the plate. The batter hit one into right that looked off the bat as if it would drop, but Brylee Watkins was able to make a diving catch to secure the victory. Lynch and Ray both pitched three innings in the victory.
On Monday, KC and Sumter faced off as the only two unbeaten teams remaining in the tournament. Sumter jumped to a 1-0 lead after one and led, 1-0, after two innings.
KC needed some momentum in the third inning. With two outs and a runner at first and second, Carleigh Wallace had a huge triple to right center to put KC on top, 2-1. After a scoreless fourth, KC was able to put up five runs in the fifth by sending 11 batters to the plate. Iyana Chavis had an RBI double and Madison Stokes had a two-run triple to push the lead to 7-1. After KC shut down Sumter in the bottom of the fifth, it added two more runs to have a comfortable lead going into the bottom of the sixth.
Sumter scored a pair in the bottom of the sixth, but KC was able to hold on for a 9-3 victory. Lynch pitched three innings, Madison Stokes worked one while Ray pitched two innings for the victory.
Last Tuesday, KC played the host team, Union County, which was the only team to beat the local entry in last year’s state tourney. Even though this was a totally different set of Union County players, KC wanted a chance to beat the hostesses.
KC grabbed the early lead and won, going away, 12-1. Stokes pitched all four innings before the game ended by the 10-run rule as Union County was eliminated from the tournament.
On the other side of the bracket, Sumter eliminated Lancaster to force a rematch with KC on Wednesday. Sumter would have to beat KC twice to keep the local squad from advancing to the World Series.
Sumter showed up to play on Wednesday and jumped out to an early 2-0 lead after an inning and a half. KC started the second with a walk from Cox, who stole second and advanced to third with a ground ball by Lynch. Cox scored on a hit by Alyssa Faulkenberry to cut the lead in half and the score was tied with a hit by Watkins. After Ray pitched her second straight inning to hold the lead, KC put scored runs in the third to go up 6-2 with the big hit coming on a Ray double.
Lynch came on to pitch the top of the fourth. She quickly got the first out before the defense had its only bad inning of the tournament. KC coach Lee Stokes believed his team was feeling the pressure a little at this point and made a few mistakes which were uncharacteristic of how they normally play.
KC was able to get out of the inning without Sumter taking the lead, but it was now 6-6. After KC failed to score in the bottom of the fourth, Sumter continued to build on its momentum as it loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the fifth. A ground ball to Stokes at second got the first out of the inning, but it also allowed Sumter to take the lead 7-6 with runners at second and third. Coach Lee Stokes had Lynch pitch around the next batter with first open to bring the force at home back into play. Sumter hit a grounder to first and Ella Sheorn was able to go home for the second out of the inning and keep the score at 7-6 as Lynch got the next batter out to pop out to left.
With one gone in the fifth and Ray at bat, coach Stokes could tell the girls were pressing so he told them they were going to score two runs and then shut Sumter out in the sixth to advance to the World Series. Ray delivered a big hit with a triple, putting the tying run at third with only one out. Haydin Williams was able to get a good bunt down and Ray scored to tie the game at seven. After Cox singled, Lynch put KC up 8-7 with a hit to right.
Lynch was able to get the first girl to ground out to Ray at third base. With one gone, Sumter reached on a walk and then stole second. A ground ball to the pitcher made it two outs with the tying run at third. A hit to center tied up the game at eight before Lynch got Sumter’s best batter to pop out get out of the inning without any more damage.
Chavis lead off the bottom of the sixth with a big single to left field before taking second on a pass ball and then reached third on a perfect bunt by Alexis Varney. Varney took second on the first pitch to Sheorn who walked to load the bases with the winning run on third and no outs. A fly ball to left by Wallace forced the runners to hold. With one out, Madison Stokes hit a hard grounder to short with the throw getting the runner at the plate to keep the game tied. Ray the delivered the winning hit as she sent a liner to left which had two Sumter players diving for and just missing making the catch that would have forced extra innings.
KC didn’t do it the easy way but went 5-0 in the state tournament by twice beating Sumter, which finished second, beating Union which finished third, beating Lancaster which finished fourth, and fifth-place Georgetown. The champions went through all the best teams. The remaining teams, in order, were Bluffton, Hartsville and Clinton.
Coach Lee Stokes was going to go through all of the batting stats, but there were too many big hits by the entire team. Here were some of the highlights from the state tournament run: Sheorn played great at first base all week; Wallace caught every inning and played all district with a fractured catching wrist that she got during a pre-all-star games; Madison Stokes provided six innings on the mound and split time between third base and second; Ray pitched 10 innings and played third base when not pitching; Williams played a great center field and Cox played great at shortstop all tournament and provided a big inning on the mound.
Daleah Dixon played great in left field before an injury forced her to miss the last two games of the tourney with coach Stokes saying Dixon was the team’s biggest fan and a great coaching asset against Sumter as Dixon plays travel ball with the Sumter girls and was able to help coach Stokes position the defense. Lynch pitched 12 innings and played second base, Faulkenberry played both corners of the outfield, Watkins played great in left, Chavis played center and left field while Alexis Varney played right.
Stokes said he was pleased with the hard work the young ladies displayed which has led them to getting where there are, with more to come.
“All of the young ladies are so excited at the opportunity to go represent the state of South Carolina and Kershaw County in the Dixie Softball World Series,” he said. “The girls are receiving support from so many in the community.”
Stokes gave special thanks to Chuck Sturkie for coming to 25-plus practices to pitch to the girls, which has improved their batting; to Coach Mike Rawl and his daughter, Taylor Rawl, who took their time to help as much as possible to improve all of the players and to Lugoff-Elgin softball coach Savannah Starling, who allowed the all-stars to use L-EHS for practices. “Being able to use the batting cages at Lugoff-Elgin on days when it rained was a tremendous help,” Stokes said.
The team also wanted to thank Kershaw County Council Chairman Julian Burns for supporting the team as well as all of the workers with the KC Parks & Recreation Department along with all the local businesses who are working to help sponsor the team.
The team has three fundraisers currently planned to help offset the cost of the trip to Texas. On Wednesday, July 24, there will be a hot dog fundraiser at DeBruhl’s Café at 2020 West DeKalb St. in Camden from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. On Thursday, July 25, there will be a spirit night at Chick-Fil-A from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. On Friday, July 26, there will be a BBQ fundraiser at Haile Street Grill between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; tickets must be pre-purchased for that event
“Hopefully,” Lee Stokes said, “God will continue to bless these young ladies as they travel and play in Texas. The next game with be against Mississippi on Saturday, Aug. 3.”