Helena’s season ends at state tourney with school-record 48 wins

Published 10:36 am Sunday, May 23, 2021

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor 

OXFORD – Stepping off the field for the final time after their season ended in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday, May 22, there were some tears as the Helena Huskies walked to their final post-game circle to the left of field 1 at Oxford’s Choccolocco Park.

After losing to Mortimer Jordan 5-4 to end their state tournament run on what many thought was a poor call preventing two runs from scoring in the final inning, the Huskies could have handled the moment differently.

But through the tears, there were smiles, laughs and a sense of proudness from a group who made school history this season.

“You look around and see the community support, and they just rallied around it because these girls are so likeable,” head coach Scott Lowery said. “This team was all about heart and character. They believed in each other and believed in me. Everybody contributed and you can’t ask for anything else.”

It was a season that saw Helena win a school record 48 wins and make it to the final day of the season as one of the final four teams in the 6A classifications following a remarkable run to finish with a 48-14 record.

It marked Helena’s fourth trip to the state tournament in the last five postseasons, but the furthest the team has made it at the 6A level.

The Huskies did make it to the championship in 2016 at the Class 5A level, eventually losing to Springville twice to fall short of the title.

Then, after moving up to the 6A classification going into 2017, the Huskies were able to win one game, while in 2019, they lost two in a row to make a quick exit.

This year’s team, however, was ranked No. 2 in the state for the majority of the season, beating some of the state’s best teams like 7A champion Hewitt-Trussville as well as most of the teams in the 6A state tournament.

“I loaded our schedule up this year because I didn’t know how long it would last and wanted them to get a taste of the best,” Lowery said.

With that track record, they weren’t going down this year without a fight.

Helena opened this year’s state tournament against Hazel Green and got off to an impressive start thanks to Cam Bailey.

She gave up just two hits through the first five innings in the circle to keep the Huskies in a tight scoreless game.

Through five innings, the two teams had a combined five hits and 13 strikeouts.

But the Huskies, who had outhit Hazel Green, couldn’t convert on different opportunities offensively in the game, which led to the Trojans capitalizing.

With two outs in the inning, a second walk put two on base before a triple from Mariah Bazile brought home both base runners for a 2-0 lead. Then, the Trojans added one more when a wild pitch allowed Brazile to cross the plate for a 3-0 lead.

That became the final score after the Huskies went down in order in the top of the seventh.

With that loss, Helena was quickly in the loser’s bracket now needing six wins in a row to win the state championship.

The Huskies, however, didn’t let that end the season and responded in a big way.

The second game of the day, with the season on the line, went similarly to the first.

Ann Marie Stanbridge and Bailey combined to allow just six hits and struck out six in a shutout performance.

The offense, however, still struggled for much of the game.

That finally changed in the top of the seventh when the Huskies scored their first runs of the day. With two aboard, Alex Erwin brought home one with an RBI bunt before Sara Ezekiel hit a sac fly to make it 2-0.

Then, with two outs on the board, Bailey stepped to the plate and blasted a two-run homer to left field for a 4-0 lead.

She then came out and finished off the shutout victory to keep the season alive and set up a matchup with Athens.

“We actually played Athens earlier in the year and lost a close game with our No. 4 pitching, so we were really hoping to get another shot at them,” Lowery said.

And again, the pitching continued to be a highlight for the Huskies.

Stanbridge got the start for the second game in a row, and she didn’t disappoint with the season on the line again thanks to a four-hit complete-game shutout.

Helena scored two in the third and one in the fifth thanks in large part to Alana Scott continuing an impressive stretch and reaching base safely every time she stepped to the plate.

With the 3-0 win, the Huskies stayed alive and advanced to the final day of the tournament where they were set to take on Mortimer Jordan as one of the final four teams left standing.

“When we lost that first one, we could have gotten deflated, but we responded by beating Spanish Fort and Athens. That helped motivate us a little bit going into today,” Lowery said.

But the Blue Devils came out swinging and put Helena in an early 4-0 hole after the bottom of the first.

With pitching being the story of the first day for the Huskies, Helena was quickly put in a position of needing the offense to shine, but the team responded quickly.

In the top of the second, Helena put together four runs of its own with an RBI single from Juju Wilkins, a two-RBI single from Emily Crowe and a sac fly from Bella Holiday to tie the game.

Mortimer Jordan then came right back with a two-out rally in the bottom half. A single put one aboard, before a wild pitch moved them to second. An error then allowed the Blue Devils to take a 5-4 lead through two innings.

Both teams settled in over the next few innings before Helena put the pressure on in the final two innings.

In the top of the sixth, the Huskies put two runners in scoring position with one out and then loaded the bases with two outs.

Holiday stepped to the plate looking to tie the game or give the Huskies the lead and put together a battle. She earned a full count and forced eight pitches during the at bat. She then hit a hard ball to center field, but right at the center fielder, leading to the final out.

Helena, however, had one more chance in the seventh with Scott stepping to the plate to lead off the inning in the two spot.

She reached on a single to finish the game reaching base safely all four times she stepped to the plate, and starting a hopeful rally.

After a pop out, Lexie Bullock singled to left field to eventually put two runners in scoring position with one out.

That’s when controversy struck.

She looked to have laid down a perfect bunt that brought home Scott and was set to bring home the go-ahead run, before the umpire stepped in and called Lively out for stepping out of the batter’s box, which had disappeared at that point in the game, preventing at least the game-tying run and putting two outs on the board.

With runners still on second and third, the call, which saw Lowery immediately get ejected for voicing his displeasure, was too much of a momentum swing for the Huskies to overcome as the game ended on a strikeout one batter later.

“I think sometimes when the moment is big, they try to invent things. I really don’t think she was out of it, and I mean, there wasn’t really a box left by that point in the game. I just don’t think you can make that call unless you already had that in mind beforehand,” Lowery said after the game. “It is what it is, but I don’t think that should have been how this game was determined.”

But Lowery also mentioned the bases being loaded in the top of the sixth and the team not able to capitalize on what could have made the difference.

“I told them all the time, we had 14 losses, and in all of those losses, we controlled it. Not taking anything away from those other teams, but we would make an error or not get a timely hit when we needed it when we had runners in scoring position. I was trying to put ownership on them knowing, ‘Hey, nobody is going to have ownership over you.’ When you’ve got talent, you control it,” Lowery said. “We had the bases loaded and missed that opportunity. It’s one of those where God wasn’t ready to make it our time yet, and you respect that, but it’s a tough way to lose.”

Despite the tough ending, Lowery said the experience was awesome this year for the team, and he’s thankful for the seniors buying into his leadership as well as the stage they’ve set for a strong group of returning players.

“I told the girls who are returning, and we have most of them back, that they have tough shoes to fill with these seniors,” Lowery said. “They set the foundation by believing in me.”

Through a smirk, he then said, simply, “We’ll be back.”

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.