ALABASTER – Mackenzie Hill and the Wallace State sophomores have their softball championship.
Hill scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch in the bottom of the eighth inning on Monday afternoon, sending Wallace State's third-ranked softball team to a 5-4 victory over Shelton State in the Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC)/Region 22 tournament championship game at Veteran's Park in Alabaster.
Wallace State, which navigated through the elimination bracket on Sunday to set up Monday's championship, captured its seventh conference championship in nine seasons and ninth overall.
All nine titles have a story of their own, and this one was about Wallace State's sophomores making sure they weren't going to be the first class to leave Hanceville in more than 10 years without a conference tournament title under their belt. Even if it took extra innings.
"We wanted a championship and knew we were going to do whatever it took to get it done. Coach Clem made sure to remind us we didn't want to be the first class to not win a title, so we took a lot of pride in making it happen," said Hill, who had four RBIs Monday and was named to the all-tournament team. "I knew when we loaded the bases with no outs, something good was about to happen."
With the game tied at 4-4, Hill was hit by a pitch to lead off the bottom of the eighth and moved around to third after Rachel Ragland and Katie Parr also reached base. Hill raced home on the first pitch Shelton State's Alyssa Clayton threw to Wallace State's Sam Riley, which reached the backstop, and the Lady Lions celebrated the title at home plate after Hill scored standing up.
Wallace State (62-12) forced extra innings with a rally in the bottom of the seventh. Facing a 4-3 deficit, Parr led off the inning with a single and came around to score on a one-out single by Molli Garcia, tying the game at 4-4. The Lady Lions left the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.
Wallace State sophomore pitcher Amanda Medders retired Shelton State in order in the top of the eighth, and Wallace State put a bow on the championship when Hill scored on the wild pitch.
"I can't say one championship is sweeter than another, but these sophomores deserve this championship probably more than any other group I've had. They've worked so hard. They are great leaders. There were times we looked like we were going to give it away, but to fight back like we did in the seventh inning is what we are about. I'm sure a lot of people thought we were done. Our sophomores didn't let it happen. They made sure to do everything we asked of them," said Clem, who has guided Wallace State to all nine conference titles and surpassed the 800-win plateau earlier this season.
Wallace State now advances to the NJCAA Division I softball championship at St. George, Utah, on May 13-16. Wallace State's last trip to the national tournament two seasons ago resulted in the program's second national championship. Wallace State missed out on a chance to repeat last season after finishing third in the conference.
Wallace State opened Monday's championship action with a 7-1 victory, winning its fourth consecutive game after falling to Faulkner State in the second round and pushing Shelton State to the "if" game.
Wallace State surged out to 5-0 in the second inning. Sarah Jordan plated the first run with an RBI single, Hill added a three-run double in the inning and Ragland capped the scoring with an RBI single.
Riley added a two-run homer in the fifth, extending the Lady Lions lead to 7-1.
Wallace State jumped on Shelton State early in the championship game, scoring single runs in the second and third innings. Andrea McKenzie collected an RBI single in the second to hand the Lady Lions a 1-0 advantage, and Brooke Kinsey made it 2-0 in the third with an RBI single.
Shelton State's Sydney Dishman hit a solo homer in the top of the fifth, trimming Wallace State's lead to 2-1. The Lady Lions answered back with a run in the bottom of the fifth on a Hill RBI single.
Shelton State cashed in on three Wallace State errors in the top of fifth, scoring four unearned runs to maintain a 4-3 edge.
It stayed 4-3 until Wallace State rallied in the seventh.
"We could have easily laid down multiple times in the tournament, so I'm proud of the resiliency of this team. We could have packed it in after Faulkner State beat us, and we could have laid down after Shelton State took the lead," Clem said. "We never gave in. We told the team just to get to today (Monday), and we would treat it like a doubleheader against Shelton State. We just kept fighting and fighting."
Riley, a freshman from Winfield, was named tournament MVP. Wallace State's first baseman finished with seven hits, including a pair of homers and five RBIs over a seven-game span.
"It means the world to me to be named the MVP. Words can't describe this feeling. I couldn't have accomplished it without my teammates and coaches," said Riley, who has battled injuries all season. "It's been a long journey with one injury after another, but I'm so glad I was able to do something for our team. We never gave in and never gave up."
Medders, Hill, Ragland and Jordan were also named to the all-tournament team for Wallace State.
Medders was the winning pitcher in both victories against Shelton State, becoming one of the few 30-game winners in Wallace State softball history. She tossed a complete game in the opener and was the winner in relief in the championship game.
"This is the first time I've been a part of championship, and it means a whole lot because the sophomore class had something to prove," Medders said. "Even though we lost to Faulkner State early in the tournament, I think it helped us out because we fought harder and had more fire in us. It made us appreciate the winning. We knew nothing was going to be given to us. We were going to have to earn it."
Ragland, Medders' sophomore pitching counterpart, tossed a pair of complete games on Sunday, including a 9-0 shutout of Faulkner State, to propel the Lady Lions into Monday's title game.
Wallace State's sophomore class includes Hill, Medders, Ragland, Kinsey, Jordan, McKenzie, Courtney Walker and Katlyn Whitehead.
Picture: Mackenzie Hill celebrates after scoring the game-winning run against Shelton State