By BRET H. McCORMICK
SULPHUR – Sometimes you’re the hunters; other times you’re the ones being hunted.
For Buckeye High School’s softball team, it doesn’t really matter which role they’ve landed.
For the second straight season, they found a way to come out as champions.
A year after winning the Class 3A softball championship as the No. 7 seed, the top-seeded Lady Panthers went back to back by defeating Vandebilt Catholic 4-1 Saturday at Frasch Park to claim the Division II Select championship.
As junior pitcher Olivia Henry fielded a grounder and threw to first base for the final out, the Lady Panthers poured onto the field in celebration of their second straight state championship.
“This is awesome. I can’t describe this feeling,” said shortstop Maddie Sinclair, the team’s only senior.
Justin Kees, Buckeye’s third-year coach, said there was a lot more pressure on the Lady Panthers this season, as they entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and with a target on their backs as a defending champion.
“We knew we were the hunted,” Kees said. “We knew everybody was out to get us – No. 1 seed, everything like that. These girls never wavered. They never blinked, and I can’t be more proud of this team than what they did today. It’s unbelievable.”
“This year we changed divisions, and we ended up being No. 1,” Henry said. “Different opponents, No. 1, state champs last year, so it was definitely a lot of pressure.”
As they say, pressure makes diamonds, and the Lady Panthers certainly shined in Sulphur.
Buckeye took a first-inning lead Saturday courtesy of an Allison Brosett leadoff double and an RBI single by Henry. Adysen Mitchell delivered the big blow with a two-run home run in the fifth inning, and the Lady Panthers rode a steady, clutch pitching performance from Henry, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after giving up just two runs in wins over No. 4 David Thibodeaux and No. 2 Vandebilt Catholic
Sinclair, who was among the first Lady Panthers to rush out of the dugout when Mitchell’s home run cleared the fence, described the euphoria she felt after Mitchell’s bomb.
“Oh, I could’ve kissed her,” Sinclair said, laughing. “I was so happy. That just set it in. I knew this game was won. Their momentum was killed. We had all the momentum, and they weren’t gonna get it back.”
“When Adysen believes in herself and her teammates believe in her, you saw what can happen,” Kees said. “She can hit it with the best of them in the state, and she proved it today.”
Henry, who went 1-for-6 at the plate in Sulphur, struck out for the first out of the inning and walked to the dugout feeling as if she were letting her teammates down. Before she knew it, they were all celebrating.
“I struck out before and I was just like dang-it,” Henry said. “I went up to her and said, ‘pick me up, pick me up.’ I went into the dugout, taking off my batting gloves, taking off my helmet, and I hear everybody scream. I look over and see this ball flying over the fence. I was like, ‘YES!’ – just so happy and so relieved. I knew that my team was going to pick me up.”
That belief in her teammates is the same belief that Sinclair, Kees and the rest of the Lady Panthers have in Henry, the Lady Panthers’ calming junior presence in the circle. As she has done time and time again over the past two seasons, Henry stared down a tense, pressure-filled moment and delivered on the biggest stage in Louisiana high-school softball.
“Olivia has grit. I mean, we all have grit, but Olivia has worked so hard and I’m so proud of her,” Sinclair said.
Henry said that grit and determination represent her “whole being” and sum up her competitiveness on the field, which helps her overcome her nerves before and during the game.
“My family told me if you weren’t a competitor, you wouldn’t be nervous. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be nervous,” Henry said. “I feel like if you’re not competitive and you don’t have grit and you’re not willing to give it everything you’ve got, then you shouldn’t be out here. My whole team, we’re competitive and we have grit, and that’s why we deserve this.”
Kees praised Henry’s “bulldog mentality” and labeled her the most underrated pitcher in Louisiana.
“Liv Henry is unbelievable,” he said. “When it’s the toughest of tough times, when your back’s against the wall, she wants the ball in her hands. She wants to go compete. I can’t ask for more than that. I’m just glad I get another year with her.”
Buckeye advanced into the championship game with a 5-1 victory over David Thibodeaux on Friday.
Brossett, who had three hits, singled to lead off the first inning, stole second base and scored on a groundout as the Lady Panthers took a 1-0 lead. They added two more runs in the second on a two-run single by Brossett.
After David Thibodeaux scored its only run in the fourth, Buckeye added insurance runs in the fifth and sixth inning, when Brossett drove in her third run of the game with an RBI single.
In just his third season at Buckeye, Kees already has won two state championships. He took over a program with a rich softball history – including a state title in 2012 and two runner-up finishes, the last coming in 2019 – but Kees has raised the Lady Panthers’ profile to new heights.
With only one senior graduating – Sinclair, the Mississippi College signee who set a school record with 12 home runs this season – and Henry returning in the circle, it’s not too soon to mention the dynasty word around Kees and Buckeye softball.
Only 20 programs in the history of Louisiana softball have won three straight state championships, including North Desoto and Calvary Baptist, who completed the feat this season.
The Lady Panthers are 10-1 in the playoffs during Kees’ tenure and have won nine straight postseason games.
They reloaded in 2023 after losing three seniors, including all-state first baseman Alexis Smith and all-state outfielder Sina Ballew. Sinclair stepped up her vocal leadership, and Buckeye plugged holes with some young players including freshman MaKinley Miller at third base and eighth-grade left fielder Sadie St. Pe, who drove in the final run of the championship game with an RBI single.
Sinclair said her message to the team was that just because they lost three good players didn’t mean the Lady Panthers weren’t still champions and couldn’t repeat their title. In 2024 they will return 10 of the 11 players who saw the field in the title game and with extremely high expectations.
“I knew this year it was kind of a little rough (because) we knew we were losing three stud seniors and we had some eighth-graders coming up,” Henry said. “They filled their roles. They filled their spots. I think next year we’ll just do it again – fill the spot and pick up right where we left off hopefully.”
“We’ve got 18 returning players, and 13 of them have back-to-back championships under their belt,” Kees said. “They know what it takes, and the girls are gonna come in, they’re gonna know they have to step up their game to repeat again.”