JONESBORO — Tuckerman softball coach Matt Dillon put together a challenging schedule with this week in mind.
The Lady Bulldogs begin this week’s Class 2A state tournament as one of the obvious favorites after winning the 2021 state championship without a senior on the roster. They carry a 13-game winning streak into their state tournament opener today.
“We knew the second we stepped on the field this year that we have targets on our backs and people were going to be gunning for us,” Dillon said. “We’ve tried to stress all year long to take each inning, each pitch one at a time and just have fun, enjoy the season, lay it out there and whatever happens, happens.”
Tuckerman is one of 11 softball teams from The Sun circulation area to earn an opportunity to play during state tournament week. Three area teams will join the Lady Bulldogs in the 2A tournament hosted by South Side Bee Branch as East Poinsett County, Riverside and Rector are all in the field.
Greene County Tech and Paragould earned a trip to Hot Springs for the Class 5A state tournament, while Valley View and Westside will trek to Nashville for the 4A state tournament. Hoxie and Rivercrest earned berths in the 3A tournament at Harrison, and Armorel will play in the 1A tournament at Arkadelphia.
Tuckerman (21-5) defeated Conway Christian, Melbourne and Quitman by a combined 36-4 to win the Central Region tournament. The Lady Bulldogs play Parkers Chapel today at 3 p.m. at South Side Bee Branch.
Inclement weather frustrated some of Dillon’s efforts to play larger schools, but Tuckerman faced a couple of 6A teams, beating Rogers Heritage 8-6 before losing 5-1 to 6A-West winner Bentonville. The Lady Bulldogs split with Mountain Home and Marion, two 5A state qualifiers, and went 1-2 in a tournament at Southaven, Miss.
“I feel like we’re playing our best ball right now, to be honest. I feel like our bats are starting to heat up a little bit,” Dillon said. “We were kind of slow out of the gate on our bats and it’s taken the pitchers a little bit to get where they need to be, but I think we’re starting to gel here at the right time.”
Still a young team with only two seniors, the Lady Bulldogs utilize three pitchers. Sophomore Makaylie Gist (10-2, 1.74 ERA) and junior Hannah Nicholson (9-1, 2.00) share starting duties, while junior Kenzie Soden has three saves in a closing role.
Senior center fielder Shanley Williams, a slap-style hitter, ignites Tuckerman’s offense in the leadoff role. Williams has a .494 batting average with 21 stolen bases, and she has also driven in 24 runs.
Soden, who plays second base or shortstop when not pitching, leads the team with 32 runs batted in. Senior first baseman Reagan Washam has a .432 average with 20 RBIs; Gist has a .426 average and 28 RBIs; and sophomore catcher Gracie Smith has a .414 average with 29 RBIs.
EPC (29-2) also enters the state tournament as a No. 1 seed after defeating England, Riverside and McCrory to win the North Region tournament. Coach Brandon Powell’s Lady Warriors also played up a couple of classifications early in the season to get ready for May, losing 3-2 to Valley View and defeating Westside 9-2.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more out of these girls this year,” Powell said. “It’s been a tough year off the field for them and they’ve just kind of stuck together and played ball, and when we got in tough spots they never got their head down. They just kept on playing and found a way to get a lot of Ws over the course of the season.”
Powell said the Lady Warriors have had to deal with the loss of current and former faculty members this school year, plus the loss of a classmate. EPC, which is on the side of the bracket opposite Tuckerman, plays Cotter today at 3 p.m. at Greenbrier.
Junior pitcher Keegan McCorkle has allowed only 77 hits and 13 earned runs in 171 2/3 innings, striking out 296 batters.
“She’s really matured as a player from last year. I think she was really worried about trying to strike every batter out and do it by herself,” Powell said. “This year she’s really worked on locating and hitting her spots, pitching to contact and letting her defense play behind her.”
McCorkle is also a key contributor offensively with a .489 average, nine home runs and 39 RBIs.
Powell said junior Natalie Dunman has been EPC’s most consistent hitter with a .484 average, five home runs and 48 RBIs.
“I don’t really remember her slumping any time during the season. She’s just been consistent,” Powell said of Dunman. “Even when she gets out, she’s usually hitting it hard somewhere.”
Freshman Mercedes Reel is batting .409 with 27 RBIs; sophomore Terrin Powell holds a .337 average with 24 RBIs; and junior Jaycee Davis has a .426 average along with 39 RBIs.
Riverside (15-9) will play Mansfield, last year’s state runner-up, at 12:30 p.m. at Bee Branch. Rector (18-5) takes on Lavaca this morning at 10 at Greenbrier.
Valley View (24-5) faces the longest wait of any area team going to a state softball tournament. The Lady Blazers, who earned a bye as the No. 2 seed from the East Region, will play Farmington or Malvern on Friday at 5:30 in the 4A tournament at Nashville.
Anna Winkfield leads Valley View with a .434 average, also driving in 23 runs and scoring 24. Catcher Lexi Davis has a .402 average with 29 RBIs and four home runs, while second baseman Mackenzie Whitlock has a .390 average and a team-high 31 RBIs.
Outfielder Izzy Riba has scored a team-high 39 runs while driving in 27. Pitcher Riley Smith has a 1.01 ERA, a 22-4 record and 216 strikeouts in 145 2/3 innings.
Westside (19-8) plays Morrilton today at 12:30 p.m., with the winner advancing to play Nashville on Friday.
Third baseman Baile Rogers and shortstop Bailey Willis are both batting .420 for the Lady Warriors, while Rachel Edwards has a .391 average. Rogers’ totals include 12 doubles, while Willis has belted six home runs and four doubles since returning from an off-season knee injury. Jada Diaz and Abby Manley have hit four home runs each.
Gracie Landreth and Manley have shared pitching duties. Landreth has struck out 104 batters, while Manley has fanned 87.
Greene County Tech (24-4-1) rolled through the 5A-East conference with a 13-1 record to earn a No. 1 seed in the 5A state tournament at Hot Springs. The Lady Eagles play Hot Springs Lakeside today at 3 p.m.
Paragould (12-9, 9-5 conference) is the No. 4 seed from the 5A-East, giving the Lady Rams a first-round game against Sheridan today at 10 a.m.
In the 3A tournament at Harrison, Hoxie plays Lincoln today at 12:30 p.m., while Rivercrest faces Booneville at 3 p.m. Armorel plays Western Yell County in the 1A tournament at Arkadelphia at 12:30 p.m.