Photos by F. Brian Ferguson
Coal City – The Class AA Region 3 softball championship resembled a Charles Dickens classic – a tale of two cities.
Fortunately for Independence, two games in the best-of-3 series against Wyoming East were played on familiar grounds in Coal City.
After taking game one, 8-0 in five innings at home Monday, the Patriots were again red-hot at the plate Wednesday.
Behind a 15-hit barrage, Independence ran roughshod over Wyoming East 15-1 to advance to Tuesday’s state softball tournament in South Charleston.
“This is such a great feeling, especially after the crazy year that we have had,” senior catcher Kaylen Parks said. “To finally get where we wanted to be makes me so proud of this team. It’s crazy.”
“We just ran into a hot team that hit the ball. They had about six shots that had eyes today,” Wyoming East head coach Doc Warner said.
Wyoming East had the game it wanted early.
Exploding for five runs in the sixth inning Tuesday to win game two in New Richmond, East carried that momentum and confidence into the decisive third game.
A one-out single from Paige Laxton was followed by a walk to Olivia Hylton. Andrea Laxton then singled home the first run for the Warriors and moved up on the throw to the plate.
With both runners now in scoring position with just one out, Independence stood at an early crossroads.
“They got that run in the first and I was thinking here we go, but we have done that a couple of times this year,” Independence head coach Ken Adkins said. “We just don’t seem to settle in. We are a little too young and a little too amped up.”
After suffering through enough ups and downs to fill a career in just her first high school season in the circle, Indy starter Delaney Buckland squelched the Lady Warriors’ fire with back-to-back strikeouts.
“I knew I needed to come out strong today, trust myself and trust my team behind me. Yesterday, I don’t think I had enough trust in myself,” Buckland said.
“We scored the one run, but we couldn’t put the ball in play after that,” Warner lamented.
The Wyoming East strategy for most of the series was to intentionally walk the hard hitting Parks and make the rest of the Indy hitters do the work.
To counter that strategy, Adkins moved Parks to the top of the order. This time East did pitch to her and coaxed a deep fly ball to centerfield for the first out.
However, the promising start went quickly sour after three straight walks gave Indy life.
Sarah Bragg’s sharp single tied the game before a fielder’s choice from Jaina Davis made it a 2-1 Patriots lead after one inning.
With the tough first inning behind her, Buckland handcuffed the Warriors the remainder of the way, allowing only four runners to reach base.
“The first inning is always rough. You learn what they are going to do,” Buckland said. “I went into the dugout, took a deep breath and when I came back out, I was ready to go.”
Buckland also had the luxury of a solid lead after the Patriots plated six runs in the second inning to take a commanding lead. The big blow of the inning was the first of two doubles from senior Destiny Blankenship that scored two runs.
Blankenship’s blast was sandwiched between RBI-singles from Alli Hypes and Kendall Martin. All three hits came after another intentional walk to Parks.
“It was really hard knowing there was not much I could do to help, but the rest of my team backed me up in the end,” Parks said. “They are the reason we won. They hit the ball really well the whole series. They have stepped up and improved tremendously from where we started.”
For Blankenship, the series was almost storybook. In three games, she compiled 11 RBIs – 10 coming with the bases loaded.
Blankenship an all-state volleyball player, missed her senior season and decided to play softball for the first time in her high school career.
“(Softball) is very different from volleyball. I always played volleyball and knew how to play that game. I had to work for it in softball,” Blankenship said. “I had to be in the gym constantly. My swing was horrible to start, but I just got in the gym and worked it out. This feels absolutely great to help the team out.”
“Destiny has really come on this year,” Adkins said. “She has taken full advantage of the situation. She almost has a season total for RBIs in a three-game series.
No one, except maybe Blankenship’s mom, was happier for her than Parks who proved her leadership skills prior the game.
“Destiny played great. I texted her before the game and told her I was really counting on her today,” Parks said. “I knew she was one of the biggest pieces to our puzzle and we really needed her to show up today. She really did.”
Independence added two runs in the third inning and five more in the fourth for the final margin.
Outside of Parks, who was walked three times intentionally, every Indy starter had at least one hit in the contest.
Hitting directly behind Parks, Hypes, Blankenship, Martin and Bragg combined for nine hits and 10 RBIs. Davis and Chloe Hart drove in two runs apiece and Trista White had a pair of hits.
“Whenever there are people on base it makes me hit a lot better,” Blankenship said. “I know that I have to put the ball in play, no matter what and that really helps out. No one person won this game. We all helped out to win this game.”
Independence (22-14) will open state tournament play at 9:45 Tuesday on Rock Field against Oak Glen (28-1).
WE: 100 00 — 1 4 3
I: 262 5x — 15 15 1
Pitching — WE: Olivia Hylton and Paige Laxton; I: Delaney Buckland and Kaylen Parks. WP: Buckland ; LP: Hylton. Hitting — WE: Paige Laxton 1-2, Andrea Laxton 1-2 (rbi), Kayley Bane 1-2; Makayla King 1-2 (2b); I: Alli Hypes 2-2 (2 rbi), Blankenship 2-3 (2 2b, 4rbi), Martin 2-3 (rbi), Bragg 3-4 (3rbi), Davis 1-4 (2rbi), Hart 2-4 (2rbi), White 2-3, Buckland 1-4 (rbi).