On a freezing cold day the first week of March, James River and Tazewell High scrimmaged in the Cave Spring jamboree to get ready for the softball season. Three months and two days later on a much warmer day, the same two teams played for the Class 2 state championship, and the Knights were left out in the cold.
Tazewell defeated James River, 5-2, at the Botetourt Sports Complex Saturday to capture the Class 2 championship. The loss ended a storybook run for the Knights one chapter too soon after River won Region 2C championship and state quarterfinal and semifinal games in their final at bat.
“Tazewell was better than us today and they deserved to win,” said River coach Steve Austin. “They put pressure on us from start to finish, getting nine base hits and leaving 10 runners on base. We never quit, but many of those breaks we had been getting in our run to the finals were not there today. They have a way of evening out.”
A large crowd turned out to watch the championship game, including what seemed like most of the population of the greater Springwood area. The Knights had a great start, playing as visitors for the second straight game because of predetermined brackets. Leadoff hitter Jenna Pugh, who hit a leadoff homer in the semifinal win over King William, fouled off multiple pitches and worked a 3-2 count before singling hard up the middle. Lexi McCullough sacrificed her to second base, then Pugh rounded the bag and broke for third as the throw glanced off the third baseman’s glove up the line. Pugh dove safely into home plate, putting River up 1-0 just two batters into the game.
The Bulldogs took the lead in the bottom of the second inning when Macie Alford walked and was sacrificed to second by Whitney Bowman. Haley Reynolds grounded out to shortstop and the Knights looked like they might escape the inning. However, on a 1-0 pitch slapper Alayshia Griffith hit a ball that went off the glove of retreating center fielder Pugh and scored Alford to tie the score. An infield error scored Griffith with a second run as the Bulldogs took a lead they would never relinquish.
James River let a golden opportunity pass by in the top of the third inning. Keira Crawford walked with one out and, once again, Pugh had a great at bat. The Roanoke College bound senior hit a 1-2 pitch deep up the right field gap just over the right fielder’s glove for a double, putting runners on second and third with one out. Bulldog pitcher Carly Compton toughened up and coaxed infield pop ups from McCullough and Elly Lackey to end the threat.
Everything fell apart for the Knights in the bottom of the fourth inning with two outs. Knights’ pitcher Austyn Moran struck out Reynolds and got a ground out from Griffith to start the inning. Maddie Gillespie lined a single to left field before Brooke Nunley hit a two-run home run to left field that just cleared the fence. Compton then singled and Mallorie Whitaker walked before Olivia Hayes hit a bloop single to score pinch runner Kendyl Taylor and put Tazewell ahead, 5-1.
The Knights showed some life in the fifth inning as Cloey Joynes lined a one out single to center. She moved up to second base on a groundout to third base by Crawford. Pugh again got a hit, lining a hard single to center to score Joynes. Pugh stole second but was stranded there and Tazewell had a 5-2 lead that would be the final score.
Tazewell stranded two runners who had singled as Moran struck out the side in the bottom of the fifth. The Knights went quietly in the sixth and seventh, going three up and three down both innings.
Tazewell ace Compton ended up pitching a four-hitter, striking out eight and walking one. Pugh had three of River’s four hits, going three-for-three with a double, a run scored, an RBI and a stolen base.
Moran gave up nine hits and three walks but struck out 11 batters and fought to keep her team in the game. Three of the five runs were earned.
The loss followed three wins that had River fans thinking this was a team of destiny. After defeating defending Class 2 champ Appomattox, 1-0, in a 14-inning marathon in the Region 2C final, the Knights won two more thrillers in the state tournament.
Last Tuesday in the state quarterfinal, the Knights took on John Battle at Shotwell Field in Springwood in the quarterfinal round of the state tournament. River trailed into the bottom of the seventh before extending their season with a walk-off 3-2 win.
The game was scoreless after three and a half innings before James River got on the board. With one out in the bottom of the fourth, catcher Kaycee Kincaid singled hard up the middle and was replaced by courtesy runner Abbie Wilson. Ripley Barry doubled hard off of the left center field fence, moving Wilson to third. Sydnee Breeding’s high fly to shallow right field was just deep enough to score Wilson, giving the Knights a 1-0 lead.
The score stayed the same until the top of the sixth inning when an infield hit, a walk, a high chopping hit up the middle, and an outfield error led to two Trojan runs. Battle held the 2-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh when River rallied.
Freshman Sydnee Breeding began the home seventh with a hard single to center field. Joynes’ grounded out to short but Breeding was able to move to second base. Crawford, another freshman, then looped a single to shallow center and Breeding moved to third base, and Crawford then stole second to put runners on second and third.
Pugh was up next and she singled hard between third and short, scoring Breeding and tying the game at 2-2. McCullough then fouled off several pitches before hitting a chopper off the third baseman’s glove for the walk-off win, scoring Crawford with the winning run.
“Our team just won’t quit, even when the odds are against us,” said Austin. “Our rally in the bottom of the seventh was fueled by two freshmen at the end of the order.”
That set up a semifinal game on Friday afternoon at the Botetourt Sports Complex against King William. In yet another nail-biter, the Knights scored on a squeeze bunt in the bottom of the eighth for a 2-1 extra inning win.
River was the visiting team in this game and they got a lift right off the bat, so to speak, as Pugh drilled the third pitch of the game over the leftfield fence for a 1-0 lead. The Cavaliers tied the game in the bottom of the inning and after both pitchers were able to get out of some jams the game was still tied at 1-1 after the regulation seven innings.
Pugh led off the top of the eighth for River and she kept up her hot hitting, drilling one between the bag and the King William third baseman for a leadoff double. After a strikeout and a groundout to the pitcher, Pugh was still stranded on third base with Moran coming to the plate. At that point River third base coach Ryan Firebaugh decided to try a squeeze bunt and Moran got the ball down. Cavalier pitcher Taylor Johnson fielded the ball and threw to first for what would have been an inning-ending out, but her throw sailed high over the first baseman’s head as Pugh crossed the plate with the go-ahead run.
“Jenna was the catalyst for our victory,” said Austin. “The leadoff home run, her two other hits, her base running, and her instincts on offense and defense were fantastic. She is quite a player.”
The game was far from over at that point, with King William serving as the home team on this day. King William’s Annnabelle Townsen singled hard to center and Hollyn Krukowski’s bunt to third base resulted in an errant throw, putting runners on second and third with no outs.
Regan Richardson was up next and her bunt was fielded and thrown back and forth across the infield, ending up in centerfielder Pugh’s hands while covering second base, and she ultimately threw out Townsen at the plate trying to score the tying run. Two pitches later Skylar Meriwether lined to Pugh in center and she threw to second to double off Krukowski, who had gotten too far off the base, to end the game and send River to the state championship the following day.
With the win the Knights broke King William’s 23-game winning streak, a span in which the Cavaliers had outscored their opponents, 204-12, with 15 shutouts. King William ended the season at 24-3.
“We found a way to beat an outstanding team, riding a 23-game winning streak,” said Austin. “We definitely lost the statistical battle, but we made some critical, high risk plays when we needed to get a win, especially on defense.
“I was proud of Ryan Firebaugh for the two-out squeeze call to Austyn. We weren’t getting anything done against Johnson so he tried to catch them off guard and it worked out. The ironic thing is we don’t even let Austyn bunt in practice for fear of having a ball hit her pitching hand, but she did a great job getting the bunt down.”
Unfortunately for the Knights, the coach turned back into a pumpkin on Saturday with the loss to Tazewell. James River ended the year with a 24-2 record, one of the best in school history. The only losses were to Class 3 Carroll County, who River beat in a rematch, and Tazewell in the state final.
The Knights were a senior-laden team that loses Moran to Randolph College, Pugh to Roanoke College, McCullough to Bridgewater College, and Kincaid to Ferrum College, and they also lose Elly Lackey. Four of those seniors, all but Lackey who reclassified, missed their freshman year because of COVID and played an abbreviated 2021 season, where they went 9-5. But with last year’s 16-5 campaign where two starters, including Pugh, were lost before the post season, and 24-2 this year, this senior class has gone 40-7 in their last two seasons.
“Our seniors led us to this great finish,” said coach Austin. “Moran’s fantastic accomplishments have been well chronicled and Pugh had six hits in the last two games. Kincaid has been awesome behind the plate and her double walked off Nelson County. McCullough has been terrific at shortstop and her walk off hit beat John Battle, and Lackey has been really good at second base and her bases loaded triple beat Patrick County.
“No one in our program is satisfied with losing on Saturday but we are all proud of what we accomplished,” Austin continued. “So many of our playoff wins were magical and our fan support was just plain crazy. To look out and see the masses of James River fans was exciting and I want them to know that our kids were aware of them and they helped energize us for some of those memorable finishes.”