By Bret H. McCormick
SULPHUR – There’s an old adage that if you keep knocking, eventually the door will open.
Coach Brad Woodard’s Tioga Lady Indians knocked harder than ever this year, and he believes the door to a state softball championship will open soon.
Tioga advanced to the state championship game for the first time in 44 years this past weekend, but top-seeded St. Thomas More scored four late runs en route to a 7-3 victory in the Division I Select state championship game at Frasch Park on Saturday.
The Lady Indians took a 1-0 lead in the third inning on a solo home run by junior shortstop Abbi Troquille and added two runs in the fifth inning to tie the score at 3 before St. Thomas More (33-3) was able to pull away for the win.
Troquille’s home run was the first hit of the game for Tioga (23-4), and the Lady Indians didn’t get another hit until Troquille singled in the fifth inning. That hit gave the Lady Indians two runners on base following a one-out walk by Kaylee Coutee, and sophomore left fielder Kaitlyn Roberts brought both runners home with a two-run double that leveled the score.
At the time, Tioga’s red-and-white-clad fan base was rocking and the Lady Indians seemed to have all the momentum. But that momentum was short-lived as STM answered with two runs in the fifth and two more in the sixth.
Catcher Shyanne Irvin hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning to put the Lady Cougars ahead 5-3, and they pushed the lead to four runs on RBI singles by Ari Townsend and Kennedy Stutes in the sixth inning.
Woodard said he was proud of his team for fighting back to tie the game, and he expected them to do it again once STM retook the lead.
“We’ve done that all year,” Woodard said. “We’ve played what I consider good competition, and we’ve done that. We did that yesterday. We got down, and the guys came back, tied it up and went ahead. We felt like, even when we were down, that we had a shot to come back and win the ball game.”
The Lady Indians made four errors in the game, including one that led to the Lady Cougars’ first two runs of the game and another that led to their final two runs. Woodard said those mistakes cost his young team, which included four freshmen and will return all nine starters next season.
“We made four mistakes – four mistakes and they capitalized,” Woodard said. “If I had to go back and look at the book, that’s probably four runs, four runs on the board where we made some mistakes.”
The loss was just the second since February for Tioga, which started the season 0-2 with losses to Buckeye and Alexandria Senior HIgh before racking up 17 consecutive victories.
Tioga rallied from a 5-1 deficit in Friday’s semifinal game against John Curtis, scoring five runs in its final two trips to the plate for a 6-5 victory.
Troquille’s double in the fifth inning brought in two runs while a third scored on a throwing error. The Lady Indians added two more runs in the sixth courtesy of three hits and two errors.
John Curtis, which had taken a 2-1 lead in the fourth and extended it to 5-1 in the fifth, saw its comeback effort thwarted by junior Christina Lambert, who retired the Lady Patriots in order in the sixth and seventh to preserve the win.
Although Tioga’s first attempt at a first state softball title since winning back-to-back championships in 1978-79 fell short, Woodard feels great about the state of his program. Woodard took over the Tioga program in 2015, and the Lady Indians have been building since then.
They advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time under Woodard in 2019, were ranked No. 1 in Class 4A in 2020 when Covid-19 canceled the rest of the season, and advanced to the semifinals in 2021 before falling one game shy of another trip to Sulphur last season.
With everyone returning, led by Lambert in the circle and the Southern Miss commitment Troquille at shortstop, the Lady Indians should enter next season as one of the favorites in Division I.
“We’re young. We get everybody back. Everybody comes back on our team,” Woodard said. “You start four freshmen and a sophomore against a powerhouse like St. Thomas More and for five or six innings you’re right there with them toe to toe. I’m proud of these guys. It’s been a fun ride this year. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this group.”
The last message that Woodard delivered to his team before the Lady Indians walked off the field at Frasch Park was to remember the feeling they had watching St. Thomas More dogpile on the field after winning the championship.
That feeling should be what drives the girls to work even harder to get back next year and finish the job, he said.
“All the girls know how it is to get here and lose,” Troquille said. “I feel like that’s more motivation to want to win next year – just keep going and work harder. We want to come out on top next year.”