The Eagles defeated Caravel 1-0 to win the state softball championship for the second year in a row today, May 25, at the Lower Sussex Little League Park at Roxana.
The Smyrna High School softball team scored one run against Caravel in the top of the first inning, and that's all the Eagles needed to win their second straight state title today, May 25.
Well, one run plus another great pitching performance by Payton Dixon plus top-notch defense in the field. It all added up to a 1-0 victory and another Smyrna celebration at the Lower Sussex Little League Park at Roxana.
"When we looked out at the beginning of the game and saw the sea of red all around the field, it was amazing," said Smyrna head coach Nicki Shirey. "The support from our community has been wonderful."
Caravel entered the game 15-5 and was the top seed in the tournament, while the Eagles were the second seed at 18-2.
Lead-off hitter Lexi Moore sparked the Eagles offense with a single, and Kayla Wilson followed with a bunt that ticked off the glove of the charging Caravel third baseman for another single.
But the rally stalled after a force out at third base and a line out.
Then Julia Thuer stepped to the plate and lined a single to center, scoring Wilson, and Thuer raced to second on Caravel's throw to the plate.
Just like that, the Eagles led 1-0. Then they held on, inning after inning, not allowing Caravel to score.
In the bottom of the first, Dixon struck out one batter but walked the next. After the Eagles got a force out at second on the next play, Caravel followed with an infield single. The Eagles almost got the force out on a close play at second, but Caravel had runners at first and second. Then Thuer gloved a hot smash to first base and stepped on the bag to end the threat.
The Eagles went down 1-2-3.
Caravel threatened again after an error and a bloop single put runners at first and second. But Wilson caught a line drive at second base, and Madison Shaw tracked down a fly ball in right field for the third out.
Moore drew a walk for the Eagles, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Wilson, then to third on a ground out to first by Sara Miller, but a pop out ended the rally.
Caravel's lead-off batter reached first on an infield single between third base and shortstop, but the Eagles erased the base runner on a ground-out double play by Wilson, Moore and Thuer. Left fielder Olyvia Smith caught a pop fly to end the inning.
The Eagles hit three outfield pop flies but none dropped.
Caravel went down on another strikeout by Dixon, a ground out to Moore at short and a ground out to Thuer at first base.
Laiken Zay hit a grounder and reached first on a throwing error, then advanced to second while Caravel tracked down the ball.
After an out, Moore slapped a grounder to the shortstop and beat the throw for an infield single, while Zay advanced to third base.
Moore stole second, putting runners at second and third.
The next hit was an infield grounder, and Zay charged home but was thrown out at the plate.
The Eagles still had runners on second and third but a ground out ended the inning.
Caravel's lead-off hitter ripped a line drive between second and first, but Wilson leaped and snagged the ball for an out.
"When it was hit, I knew I'd have to jump, but I didn't think it would be that high," Wilson said, smiling. "It took awhile to come down."
The Bucs followed with a single to left field, but the next batter grounded to Dixon who threw to second to force out the runner.
On a well-hit ball to right field, Shaw made a running catch to end the threat.
After two quick outs at the plate, Smith singled up the middle for the Eagles, but a fly out ended the at bat.
The first Caravel batter grounded out to Dixon, followed by a walk, a strikeout and another groundout to Dixon.
In the Eagles' at bat, after two quick outs, Moore walked to reach base for the fourth time in the game and then stole second.
Wilson hit a hot smash off the first baseman's glove and was safe, while Moore advanced to third.
But Caravel caught a pop up to end the threat.
The bottom of the seventh inning, Caravel's last chance, started with a long fly out to Abby Mace in center field.
The next batter was hit by a pitch.
Then the Eagles ended the game in style on grounder to Dixon who threw to Moore at second for one out, and then Moore threw to Thuer at first for a double play and another state title.
After hugging and celebrating, the Eagles ran along the fence around the perimeter of the field, giving high fives to the Smyrna fans.
"It was unbelievable -- all the support from our community," said Moore.
She gave the fans plenty to cheer about, leading off the game with a hit and reaching base in all four of her at-bats.
"Because we were batting first, it was important for me to do my job to get us the momentum," Moore said. "I just want to put the bat on the ball and use my speed to get on base."
Shirey said the Eagles talked about the importance of setting the tone in the first inning at the plate.
"Lexi did her job well and got the ball rolling for us, and that led to the one run we needed," Shirey said. "She really has perfected her hitting style and when she makes contact she always has the chance to reach base. She's able to read the defense, and she knows if she needs to play small ball or rip it."
Shirey said Thuer came through in the clutch again for the Eagles with her RBI hit in the first inning.
"Julia is great under pressure," said Shirey. "She's able to put the ball in play when it counts to make things happen."
Thuer said she wasn't nervous but excited during what turned out to be the game-winning at bat.
"I was definitely pumped and ready to hit," said Thuer. "We had runners on and I wanted to bring them in so we could score first."
However, she didn't realize how important that would become.
"When we played Caravel the first time, we scored 10 runs, so I didn't think it was going to be a low-scoring game," she said.
As the scoreless innings went by and the Eagles weren't having a lot of success at the plate, Thuer said they never let that affect them in the field.
"We definitely have confidence in our defense," said Thuer. "We have a great pitcher, and we make good plays."
In the bottom of the seventh inning, after she caught the ball at first base on the game-ending double play, Thuer said she was a little stunned.
"I didn't know what to do with the ball. I couldn't believe it," she said. "I ran to my senior catcher, Zoe [Wilcox] who's also my best friend, to celebrate. It feels good."
Wilson said winning back-to-back titles "feels amazing. This year was for the seniors. We were playing for them."
She said the large number of Smyrna fans at the games has been "overwhelming."
"We have the best community, the best teammates and the best coaches I could ever ask for," Wilson said.
Coach Shirey said sophomore pitcher Payton Dixon did a great job holding the Bucs scoreless.
"Her speed was strong and she was keeping the ball low and away," said Shirey. "She was definitely painting the corners. She was really good and really consistent the entire game."
Dixon scattered four hits, struck out four and forced several weak ground balls by keeping the Bucs guessing, working with catcher Zoe Wilcox.
"We changed speeds and I just tried to hit the spots -- outside and inside," Dixon said.
She said the Eagles' defense was strong once again.
"I always believe in my team," Dixon said.
Shirey said the Eagles' solid defense has been a consistent strength this season.
"It shows that it only takes one run, pitching and defense to win a championship," she said.
In the state tournament, the Eagles started with a 5-1 win over Polytech, followed by a 1-0 win over St. Georges Tech, a 2-1 win over previously undefeated Delaware Military Academy and finally a 1-0 victory over top-seeded Caravel in the state championship, with Dixon going the distance in each game.
As for the back-to-back titles, Shirey said,"It's really two different feelings. The first championship was about bringing it back to Smyrna after 25 years."
Before capturing the championship in 2018, the Eagles hadn't won a state softball title since 1993 -- when Shirey played on the team with assistant coaches Kelly (Lloyd) Roscoe and Jennifer (Pase) Hall.
"This one was more about the seniors winning a championship for themselves," said Shirey. "They really worked hard to get here today. This represents years of hard work. They're special players."
Those seniors include Taylor Jaksch, Abby Mace, Sara Miller, Madison Shaw, Olyvia Smith, Zoe Wilcox and Laiken Zay.