HATTIESBURG – Oak Grove had the situation it wanted in the top of the seventh inning.
The Warriors, trailing Hernando by a run, had the bases loaded, one out and the top of their batting order coming up to face Tigers’ ace Julia Shaw.
But it was Shaw that won the battle, getting Bailey Bishop to pop up behind the plate and Hannah Picazo to hit a slow roller to first for the final out, giving Hernando a 2-1 victory in Game 1 of the Class 6A Softball Championships at the Southern Miss Softball Complex.
The Tigers (34-2) can win their first state title in softball with another victory in Game 2, scheduled for approximately 5 p.m. Friday. Oak Grove (23-6) must win Friday to force a deciding third game on Saturday.
“We knew coming in that Oak Grove is not a team that will lay down,” said Hernando coach Nicki Whitten. “Bailey Bishop was coming to bat, and we just wanted to get an out. We relied a whole lot on our pitcher right there.”
Her pitcher, junior right-hander Julia Shaw, rewarded her coach’s faith all game long, muzzling the Warriors through the first six innings on just two hits. At one point, Shaw retired 11 consecutive batters.
Of the 21 outs she recorded, 15 came by some sort of fly ball. She got popups in foul ground, line shots into the outfield, skyballs in the infield, and her defense was flawless behind her.
“I was just working on my speeds, trying to get the corners and working on my strike zone to see what the umpire had, because he’s an umpire I’ve never had before,” said Shaw (20-1), who allowed a run on four hits, she struck out three and walked three.
“A lot of (fly ball outs) are from the spin on the ball. I guess that gives it a little backspin off the bat.”
The Tigers grabbed the lead at the outset, scoring a run without a hit in the bottom of the first inning. Rylee Eyster drew a leadoff walk, took second and third on a pair of ground balls and scored on a wild pitch.
“One of the things we’ve relied on all season is our speed,” said Whitten. “Eyster got on and got around with her speed and was able to score on the wild pitch.”
That was one of the few mistakes Oak Grove pitcher Ryanne Hornsby made all night. The junior right-hander scattered five hits and worked out of trouble in every inning except one.
“Ryanne did well,” said Oak Grove coach Benjy Hornsby. “She finally settled down about the third or fourth inning and then she threw her game.
“That’s a very good-hitting team there. If you look at their scores, you see they’ve manhandled everybody else, and we held them to five hits and two runs.”
One of those hits, in the third inning, gave Hernando what proved to be the game-winning run.
Eyster, leading off, singled to rightfield, but was thrown out trying to steal on the next pitch. That saved a run for Oak Grove, because Hornsby’s next pitch was a double to the leftfield fence Jaclyn Carter.
Hornsby almost got out of the jam unscathed when she got the second out on a fly in foul territory beyond the rightfield line, but Emme Muizers hit a soft flair inches over the glove of Taryn Jackson at second base for an RBI single.
“These past three rounds, we’ve been seeing really great pitching, so it’s just mentally prepared us for this level,” said Muizers, a senior. “We’ve been working on hitting that riseball and taking it where it’s pitched. So, if it’s outside, you drive it down the rightfield line.”
Oak Grove finally got some offense going in the sixth inning, when Bishop hit a seeing-eye single up the middle with one out. She stole second and the Warriors got a second runner on via a walk, but Ashleigh Niehaus’ hard-hit ball to deep rightfield was just short for the third out.
“A lot of that was on us,” said Hornsby. “Our top hand wasn’t working to the ball and we weren’t hitting the ball square. So, we’ve got to figure that out before tomorrow. We’ll do a little hitting when we get here and see if we can work the top hand center to the ball.”
The Tigers looked poised to add to their lead when Muizers led off the bottom of the sixth with a triple. But Hornsby wriggled off the hook with a strikeout, a batter’s interference call at the plate and a sinking liner to centerfield.
Hornsby (21-4) allowed five hits, she struck out seven and walked three.
Shaw got one out in the top of the seventh on a popup, but Amulina Rummell stroked a single to right.
Pinch-runner Cadence Sheppard took second on a wild pitch and scored when Alexis Papp got one into the gap in left-centerfield for a single, reaching second a misplay in the outfield.
Pinch-hitter Jalia McDaniel drew a walk, and everybody was safe when Alexis Rose, pinch-running for Papp, beat a throw to third on a comebacker to the circle.
Bishop took a ball, then popped out to the catcher, and Picazo hit a dribbler on the next pitch inside the first-base line as Shaw nailed it down.
“It was kind of ugly, but we found some spots and we were able to get it done today,” said Muizers. “We feel a lot better about things being 1-0.”