JONESBORO — Tuckerman won the Class 2A state softball championship with a dramatic finish in May, scoring three runs over the final two innings to defeat Mansfield 4-3 before a big crowd in Benton and a statewide audience on Arkansas PBS.
The celebration began as Ansley Dawson crossed home plate with the winning run and the good times continue in Jackson County as Tuckerman celebrates its first state softball championship.
“The reaction has been incredible,” Tuckerman coach Matt Dillon said. “After we won it, when we came back into town, we had like a parade, a police escort into town. It was phenomenal. The community support has been through the roof. It took us about three weeks to get the money raised for our rings. That’s all it took and that wasn’t us going out door to door. That was donations, things of that nature. We got the city pride award. It’s been a whirlwind.”
Dillon is the Best Under The Sun Coach of the Year after leading a team without any seniors to the state championship in his eighth season as head coach.
With players who enjoyed considerable success in summer softball, many for the Aquasox team coached by Tuckerman girls’ basketball coach Chad Soden, the Lady Bulldogs had high hopes with a large group of sophomores and freshmen. Dillon got a glimpse of their talent in 2020 when they won all three games, one against Class 5A Marion, before the COVID-19 shutdown. The Lady Bulldogs started the 2021 season on an eight-game winning streak and won 13 in a row to close the season.
“It was one game to the next, and you look up and we’re 29-4 and just won the state finals,” Dillon said. “I never saw in the girls that expectations were too high. Everyone told us we should be good, and I think the girls knew we should be good, but to see it all come together like that was just incredible.”
Freshman shortstop Gracie Smith and freshman pitcher MaKaylie Gist emerged as the top two run producers for the Lady Bulldogs, driving in 49 and 46 runs, respectively. Sophomore catcher Audrey Altom and junior first baseman Reagan Washam drove in 30-plus runs each. Gist, the Best Under The Sun Newcomer of the Year, and sophomore Kenzie Soden formed an effective pitching tandem.
Dillon lined up a challenging schedule that included Brookland’s Bearcat Blast, where the Lady Bulldogs beat eventual 5A quarterfinalist Marion and eventual Missouri state finalist
Holcomb in addition to losing to 4A state qualifier Valley View. Tuckerman routed Marion early in the season, played Valley View a couple more times (splitting two hard-fought games) and lost a close game to 4A quarterfinalist Brookland.
“You want to build confidence, but you also have to challenge them. I knew our conference had some tough teams in it and I wanted to prepare them for conference,” Dillon said. “I went out and I’ll be honest, I’ll play anybody. ... When we got to the state tournament, there was really nothing that we hadn’t seen. Those teams were really good, but we were ready for it.”
Tuckerman defeated Hector, Salem and Melbourne to win the Central Region tournament. In the state tournament, the Lady Bulldogs eliminated Riverside in the first round, Horatio in the quarterfinals and Spring Hill in the semifinals, erasing a four-run deficit to reach the championship game.
Mansfield led 3-1 in the state final before Tuckerman scored two runs in the sixth inning and plated the winning run in the seventh on Soden’s walk-off single.
Looking ahead to 2022, Dillon is already planning another challenging schedule for his defending state champions.
“Now those expectations are a little bit different,” Dillon said. “I told the girls just the other day that from here on out, no matter what we do, whether it’s a team camp or a random night, people look at you differently now.
“You’re the state champs and we have to carry ourselves that way, and also try not to put too much pressure on ourselves moving forward and still do the things we did this year that got us to where we were. The one plus is we’ve seen it all and done it all, so there shouldn’t be anything that scares us or jumps up on us.”