SALEM — There were moments Friday morning when Rieley Taylor thought she’d cost her team the game, when she felt like she couldn’t field a grounder cleanly, felt upset and angry and embarrassed.
But she never felt alone.
For the junior shortstop known throughout her career as a sure-handed defender, the Class 3 state championship game against Turner Ashby was rough.
Really, really rough.
Taylor committed five errors, all within the first four innings. She made two errors in the top of the first, helping Turner Ashby to a 1-0 lead. She went 0 for 3 at the plate. And she spent at least part of the game with a tear-streaked face, hoping things would turn in her team’s favor.
Then something extraordinary occurred: The Minettes bonded, embraced Taylor, told her not to worry, and then caught fire to earn a 4-1 win at the Moyer Complex.
“They pulled me out of the slump,” Taylor said. “They picked me up, and every time they would make a play or get a good hit, they would look at me and say, ‘That was for you.’ and they would say, ‘We’re pulling you up, we’re doing this for you.’”
Champions don’t leave their teammates behind. They don’t watch their friends fail without offering support. Instead, they lean on one another.
So there was Kacey Whorley, Taylor’s best friend, going 3 for 3, all singles rifled up the middle, who delivered the go-ahead hit in the fifth.
There was Taylor Friess, who played sick after two hospital visits and five IV treatments, making an inning-ending diving catch in the fifth and then saving two runs by stretching out for an over-the-shoulder grab on a ball to deep center one inning later.
There was Kinnice Turner, who continued obliterating Turner Ashby pitching by going 2 for 3 with an RBI double in the sixth after bruising the Knights with game-defining hits in the 2018 and 2019 Region 3C championship games.
And there was Millie Thompson, the fiery southpaw pitcher who had her changeup working particularly well in Friday’s dominant two-hit performance.
They all came together for Rieley Taylor.
“We just needed to have each other’s back,” said Friess, who underwent an IV treatment Thursday night for an abscessed tonsil and added, “I wanted to get this win for my team. That’s all I really wanted to do.”
Taylor said she struggled with the mental part of softball for a long time. In the last few years she’s made great strides in that department.
But on a day when she committed more errors in four innings than she had in her entire varsity career, the old problems flared up again.
“People were here to see me that have never been to see me before, and I was disappointed in my performance,” she said. “But my team stepped up.”
Whorley didn’t doubt her friend at shortstop.
“She had her shaky moments in the game, but I know Rieley better than anyone,” Whorley said. “When stuff like that happens, she just bounces back.”
Liberty coach Mike Thompson said the field at Moyer was dry and tough Friday, one day after it played soft because of rain prior to the semifinal round.
“I told her multiple times there’s still nobody else in the state I’d rather have at shortstop than her,” the coach said.
The championship was Liberty’s first in softball and fourth overall in school history. It taught Thompson’s players something about teamwork. The coach hopes it will have the same effect on Bedford County.
“I hope it’s the first step as far as support goes,” he said. “It’s a great community, but at the same time it can be a tough community, and we have to support each other.”
On the last day of the season, after a championship game she’ll never forget, Taylor let the tears flow one more time. She talked about friendships and about how, in just 1 hour and 30 minutes, she had learned valuable lessons.
“I was a little more independent this year,” Taylor said. “I didn’t rely on my teammates as much as I should have. But at the time when I needed them most, I knew that was what I had to do. There were people trying to talk to me from the stands. But I was like, ‘I need my team right now.’”
Sometimes teammates are the only ones who can help. and sometimes, on the long journeys like Liberty’s, those teammates become a family.
“Every one of them did an incredible job being there for me at the lowest point of my season,” she said. “And it was just incredible to see everyone come together. They didn’t turn on me, they didn’t get down on me for anything. They didn’t belittle me or denigrate me. They pulled me up. They’re family. and I love them for that.”
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.