Local prep softball teams come up short in state tourney
By Tim Gayle
Three area teams came agonizingly close to capturing a state championship at the annual Alabama High School Athletic Association state softball tournament, led by appearances in the state finals by LAMP and Billingsley.
In 4A, tournament MVP Ashlee Swindle held LAMP to five hits while striking out 12 and hitting a two-run home run in the first inning to score all of the runs Curry would need in a 5-0 win in the championship game. LAMP (43-5) had reached the finals by beating Carbon Hill, Catholic, Handley and Central-Florence.
“I would have bet my paycheck that we would never even be contending for the state title, much less playing in the state championship game,” LAMP coach Anthony Norris said. “I’m without words. I had no idea that that team right there could do what they did.”
Curry entered the tournament as the No. 1-ranked team and the overwhelming favorite to win the title, while LAMP wasn’t considered one of the contenders even with its No. 3 ranking.
“The pressure was on them,” Norris said in his pre-game speech to his players. “If they’ve got five Division I-A athletes on that field, they’re supposed to be good. But you guys? Nobody, including myself, put you in this game so you just go after them. My little girls didn’t punch a lot of them through the infield, but they had to make plays to get us out. That’s what I’m most proud of.
“These girls have been in pressure situations before. Most of the time, it’s tests. It’s funny, these kids don’t see games the way I grew up as an athlete seeing games. That may be why they’re here. They had no idea what they were getting into.”
LAMP has now won 82 games over the last two years, perhaps establishing itself as a softball power in the River Region.
“I really hope it encourages people here in Montgomery to say I want my kid to be smart, get a college scholarship and come and play for a top-quality program,” Norris said. “But I’m afraid that’s not the case. I was a little disappointed in the (attendance). My typical supporters were there but here we are playing for a state championship and there was not a big crowd. I’m not upset about it, but these kids come from families that emphasize behavior and grades and to an old country boy growing up in south Alabama, it was big lights when you got to play in big ballgames.
“I had one or two that tried out for softball. The (academic) workload is not overbearing at LAMP but everybody hears that it is. It’s the rumor out there. Now they do have more work than your typical high school student but they learn to manage it and it’s not too much. If I was a parent, I would want that for my child. You cannot get a better education and we try to play competitive sports at LAMP for free. It’s a public school.”
The school has a backstop but no organized field at its old home on West Jeff Davis Ave., while the school is in a temporary location on Hall Street. Norris hopes the new location on McGehee Road – when LAMP moves there in 2017 – can help his program as well.
“I hope when we get over there we can wind up with a home field,” he said. “We’re going to work hard to have dugouts and be able to play there. I think that’s what is missing. My kids at my school don’t understand school spirit. Being able to play sports on campus, I’m going to hold games there so the student body can come out more if it’s on campus.”
In 5A, Marbury made it one game from the state finals twice before being turned away. The Bulldogs (31-11-2) beat Russellville and Beauregard before losing in the winner’s bracket finals to Helena and in the loser’s bracket finals to Springville. Springville went on to beat Helena for the state title.
“It’s so exciting,” said Marbury ace pitcher Layton Murphy said after her first game, a two-hit shutout of Russellville. “I was a little nervous at first. I really feel like we belong here and we have a shot at winning it. At the beginning of the year, we were a little iffy because we were playing in big tournaments. I think everybody knows now that we’ve played all those big 7A schools and beat them, we belong here.”
Murphy doesn’t fit your stereotype of a softball pitcher, but the 5-foot-2 junior held her own at Lagoon Park this week.
“I used to be taller than everyone else,” she said. “Everyone else grew and I didn’t. I’m smaller than everyone so it makes me want to work harder.”
Murphy has accepted an offer to play college softball at Alabama-Huntsville.
“I’ve always wanted to play softball in college,” she said. “I’m excited to play at the next level and it encourages me to keep working at it.”
Her ability to hold potent offenses in check at the state tournament certainly caught the attention of some college coaches on hand.
“She is a tremendous competitor on the field and she’s real heady about her pitching,” said David Dudley, who works with Murphy at David Dudley’s Fastpitch Softball Academy. “She tries to always stay ahead in the count and doesn’t worry about having a lot of pitches. She’s basically three or four pitches and all of those are good. Her drive to win is what makes her stand above a lot of other pitchers.”
Murphy gave a lot of credit to assistant coach Terry Ingram for the Bulldogs’ drive to the state tournament, but admitted a lot of her attention came through travel ball.
“You get a little more exposure in travel ball because nobody knows where Marbury is,” she said.
In 1A, Billingsley joined Marbury as one of the area’s top surprises after shocking the softball world by beating Brantley 1-0 to advance to the state championship game, only to watch the two-time defending state champions beat Spring Garden and Billingsley twice to reclaim the title for the third straight year.
“We knew Brantley was a great squad,” Billingsley coach J.T. Lawrence said. “Two-time defending champion, played a great schedule. We tried to play a little tougher schedule this year to prepare us for today and I think it paid off for us.”
The Bears (29-15) had a large and supportive crowd on hand supporting them in a state championship game for the first time since winning the 1A football title in 1997.
“My first year, we came up one game short at Troy of making it here and we talked about how we fed off that to try and get here,” Lawrence said. “Now, let that feeling you have, that disappointment, feed off that and get better. Start working tomorrow to get better at this game. It’s so hard to get here, then there are so many things that have to go right to win this whole thing, some things that are totally out of your control.
“Here’s what I hope it does. I talked to some of our football guys who were here to support us. There’s no magic formula, there’s no secret sign off my score sheet, it’s just they’re buying in to what we’re selling. They’re buying into it mentally that they’re as good as we’re telling them they are and they’re buying into it with their hearts that they’re going to work at it hard enough to get to this level. And I think our football guys have a great chance to do the same thing.”