Eagles defeat Appoquinimink 16-7, putting an exclamation point on the 25th anniversary of Smyrna's last softball title in 1993. See video, photos and the story.
On a warm afternoon at the state high school softball championship game today, Smyrna's bats were on fire.
The Eagles flexed their muscles at the plate in a back-and-forth game, eventually overpowering Appoquinimink 16-7 at the Lower Sussex Little League Park near Roxana.
Abby Mace hit two home runs and a double with five runs batted in to lead Smyrna's offensive attack, while Eagles throughout the lineup had multiple hits.
Pitchers Jessica Anderson and Payton Dixon teamed up in the win for Smyrna to complete a brutal tournament schedule with four games in six days.
Anderson, a right-hander, started the game, and Dixon, a lefty, came on in relief in the top of the third with Smyrna leading 5-3. Then in the top of the seventh, Anderson stepped into the circle again and finished the game with strikeouts.
The win was the ultimate way for the Eagles to mark a special anniversary. Twenty-five years ago in 1993, Smyrna won the softball state championship, and three of the players from that team are leading this year's team: head coach Nicki (Shaner) Shirey and assistant coaches Jennifer (Pase) Hall and Kelly (Lloyd) Roscoe.
"We told the team that we knew what it feels like to win a championship and we wanted them to feel it, too," said Shirey. "We wanted to bring it back for Smyrna."
Shirey said the team prepared for Appoquinimink's left-handed pitchers.
"We anticipated they would use the outside pitch with the lefty pitchers and we practiced that yesterday," said Shirey. "We told them to be aggressive. We didn't want to get down in the count. We told them if they get a good strike to jump on it."
And the Eagles jumped and jumped and jumped.
Appoquinimink scored first, though, in the top of the first inning, with a double and a run-scoring single for a 1-0 lead.
Smyrna responded in the bottom of the inning with a bunt single by lead-off batter Lexi Moore, followed by a bunt out by Kayla Wilson that moved Moore to second. Then Kaelyn Press ripped a line shot over the left fielder's head for a triple to score Moore. Sara Miller singled to score Press to give Smyrna a 2-1 lead.
In the top of the second, Appo tied the game with a single, a bunt out to advance the runner and then a run-scoring double.
Smyrna answered with a single by Julia Thuer followed by a two-run homer by Mace over the center field fence for a 4-2 lead. Then Olyvia Smith singled, moved to second on a bunt out by Moore, moved to third on a single by Wilson and scored on a hit down the right field line by Press for a 5-2 advantage.
Appo bounced back in the top of the third with a triple and a double to make the score 5-3. After a fly out, Coach Shirey changed pitchers, bringing in Dixon. Appo scored another run on an error to pull to within 5-4 before two ground outs.
In the bottom of the third, the Eagles started rolling again with a single by Laiken Zay. After a pitching change by Appoquinimink, Thuer hit a grounder and reached first while Zay was safe at second after a collision with the fielder.
Then Mace slammed her second home run to center to give the Eagles an 8-4 lead.
But the Eagles weren't done. Moore and Wilson singled, advanced to second and third on a fly out, then scored on a double by Miller that made the score 10-4. Madison Drummond followed with a single to knock in Miller for an 11-4 lead.
In the top of the fourth, Appo rallied with two outs, taking advantage of some Eagle fielding miscues that put two runners on base, followed by a run-scoring double and then another double that knocked in two more to pull to within 11-7.
Smyrna revved up the offensive engine again, as Mace doubled and Smith bunted safely. Two batters later Press ripped a hit to knock in two runs for a 13-7 Eagle lead after four innings.
In the top of the fifth, the Eagles retired the Jaguars without allowing a run, and then the Jaguars returned the favor in the bottom of the inning.
Smyrna shut down the Jaguars again in the sixth.
Then the Eagles' bats roared to life again. Smith and Moore singled and then Smith scored on a single by Wilson to increase Smyrna's advantage to 14-7.
With two runners on, Drummond crushed a double to knock in Moore and Wilson for a commanding 16-7 lead.
"I really wanted to get that hit and end our senior year and my last softball game on a good note," said Drummond, the Eagles' catcher. "It's been an exhausting week but we knew if we wanted to win, we'd have to fight through the adversity. This is something we've been wanting since we were in 10-and-under travel ball together."
In the top of the seventh, Anderson allowed one base runner on a hot smash past third base before mowing down the next three batters for the state championship.
"I had to do it for our team," said Anderson. "Everybody's worked so hard. I can't explain how it feels right now. We've wanted this for so long. Every day since March 1, we talked about how this was our goal."
Press, who had four RBI for the Eagles, said winning the championship is "amazing, surreal, but it's not even the title -- it's that we played together as a family. That's what's important."
She said, "The ultimate key is God and having faith, working with one another, being humble, and keeping the rally going."
Press, a senior, remembers that Appoquinimink knocked the Eagles out of the tournament two years ago, and she said falling to Milford in the first round last year was tough to take.
"We knew we wanted to come back and work hard and fight for this," she said.
Mace said today's title game was her first two-homer game for Smyrna High.
"I was definitely seeing the ball well today, but it's all about trust in God and trust in each other," she said. "So many players on our team have played travel ball together. We've known each other since we started playing softball, and this has been the goal. This has been the dream we've been hungry for, and we are so blessed."
Coach Shirey said Mace is "one of the hardest working kids I've seen. At the end of practice, she goes back out to the field for extra swings. She's usually one of the last players to leave the field. She has a determination and puts in the work to be that good."
Shirey said the team is actually a young squad, with just three seniors: Madison Drummond, Kaelyn Press and Jessica Anderson.
"This is definitely special for our seniors -- for them to end it together," said Shirey. "They really set the tone for us. They wanted this so badly. They organized the work in the off-season and made sure the girls were in the weight room."
While the Eagles showed plenty of muscle at the plate, Shirey said Smyrna's pitching combination of Anderson and Dixon helped keep a powerful Appoquinimink line-up in check. Like the Eagles, the Jaguars were 20-1 coming into the title game.
"Our pitchers were hitting their spots, and it's great to be able to mix it up with a lefty and go back to a righty. They make a great duo," said Shirey.
With all the ability of the players, Shirey said what really gave the Eagles the extra drive was the first-round loss in last year's tournament.
"These girls left with a feeling at the end of that game that really fueled their fire," said Shirey. "Since day one, they all had a date circled in their head, May 26, and they've put in all the work to get here and now they've done it."