Inexperience proved irrelevant last week for the Tuckerman Lady Bulldogs, just as it has all season.
Tuckerman, which has no seniors and only two juniors on its roster, marched through the first three rounds of the Class 2A state softball tournament to earn a berth opposite Mansfield in Thursday morning’s championship game at Benton.
The Lady Bulldogs rolled past Riverside 9-3 and Horatio 10-1 in the first two rounds. They fell behind early in the semifinals against Spring Hill, then took control in the middle innings on the way to a 7-5 victory.
“We have played really well, especially for a young team,” Tuckerman coach Matt Dillon said. “I wasn’t quite sure how they were going to react to it because the state tournament, that’s the brightest of the lights, and we played well. We hit the ball well, our defense only made one or two errors in three games.
“We’ve been really solid defensively and the pitching has been great. We got down against Spring Hill on Saturday, we gave up a few walks and they got a timely hit, and we got down 4-0. But we just put our head down and kept on going.”
Tuckerman (28-4) hopes to take the next step and bring home its first state softball title on Thursday. The Lady Bulldogs and Mansfield (19-4) meet at the Benton Athletic Complex at 10 a.m.
Only one Class 2A team, Cedar Ridge, has defeated Tuckerman this season. The Lady Bulldogs bounced back the next day to defeat Class 4A power Valley View and start the 12-game win streak they will take into the state final.
With an average of nine runs per game, the Lady Bulldogs always have the potential for a big inning.
“One through nine, we’ve got some really good hitters. We just pass it off one after the other,” Dillon said. “If one girl is down today, the next girl picks it up. We’re a really good hitting team and our pitching has been really good. We have a really good 1-2 punch with Makaylie Gist and Kenzie Soden. It’s been a really good combo for us.”
Gist, a freshman left-hander, has a 22-2 record and 187 strikeouts in 139.1 innings. Soden, a sophomore who has struck out 51 batters in 44.2 innings, often closes games for the Lady Bulldogs.
Freshman shortstop Gracie Smith has a .526 batting average with six home runs, 48 runs batted in and 49 runs scored to lead Tuckerman’s offense.
“She’s consistent, just day in and day out. She leads us in every category except home runs,” Dillon said. “Makaylie Gist leads us in home runs and she just comes up with big hit after big hit. Kenzie Soden, at the first of the year she was injured, and this last month she has really come on strong. She’s been driving in runs for us. She led us in the state tournament with a .500 average. She’s a hard out at the plate.”
Gist has driven in 46 runs and is the home run leader with 10 of the team’s 30 homers. Sophomore catcher Audrey Altom and junior first baseman Reagan Washam are also key run producers with 37 and 33 RBI, respectively.
Soden, who plays third base when not in the circle, is batting. 409. Junior center fielder Shanley Williams, Tuckerman’s leadoff batter, owns a .481 average with 45 runs scored. Sophomore infielder Lizzy Walker is another threat with a .442 average and 21 RBI.
Dillon said Washam and Williams have provided excellent leadership.
“They’re our only upperclassmen and they’ve acted like seniors and beyond. They’ve just been awesome team leaders for us this year,” Dillon said. “From there, the bulk of the team is sophomores and we have seven freshmen. We are very young.”
Another young team will be in the dugout opposite the Lady Bulldogs on Thursday.
Mansfield (19-4) has only two seniors on its roster. The Lady Tigers defeated Fordyce 5-3, Quitman 5-4 and Parkers Chapel 7-5 in the first three rounds of the state tournament.
“Mansfield is a really good team. They’re a big team, they’re big and strong, and they can swing it,” Dillon said. “Their pitcher throws hard, moves it around. It’s going to be a really big test for us.”