BEDFORD — The wait is almost over.
Finally, after enduring a week’s delay to the Class 3 softball tournament schedule, the Minettes will take the field again. At 9 a.m. Thursday at Salem’s Moyer Complex, Liberty will take on Warren County in the semifinals.
LHS, of course, has been ready to play for a while now. Riding the momentum of a seven-game winning streak that includes Seminole District and Region 3C championships, Liberty is playing some of its best softball in the postseason. That the semifinals are nearly here, then, means relief for the extra stress the Minettes have been carrying.
But Liberty has shouldered more than a week’s worth of restlessness. The Minettes (20-6), after seeing their state title hopes dashed last season in the semifinals, say Thursday’s contest is more than a year in the making, and represents a chance to put an end to the school’s wait for a state title.
“We have a ton of unfinished business to handle,” Kacey Whorley said following LHS’ victory over Staunton River in the Class 3 quarterfinals. “This year we have a ton of momentum, and we’re ready to carry each other and our team to the state championship.”
If they hope to continue their quest to capture the school’s first-ever state softball trophy, the Minettes will have to first muscle their way past two-loss Warren County.
The Front Royal-based Wildcats (21-2) enter Thursday’s contest having won four straight, including a Region 3B championship. Only fellow Northwestern District and Class 3 member Skyline and Rappahannock County — both of which are still alive in their state tournaments — have handed Warren County losses, and in between the two setbacks, the Wildcats reeled off 16 straight wins.
LHS will be tasked first with finding ways to score against Wildcats pitcher Elizabeth Keener.
The senior ace has been consistent all year for Warren County, surrendering just one loss against 20 wins.
She’s recorded 169 strikeouts against just 12 walks and has posted a 1.63 ERA in 129 innings pitched.
Liberty, meanwhile, struggled to score against a slate of talented Seminole District and Division I-level pitchers.
“I think all year the only thing we’ve really lacked is driving in runs. We’ve gotten runners on,” coach Mike Thompson said.
But, he added, his team has found ways to deliver at the plate in crunch time of late. Take, for example, the performances of Whorley, Machenze Flood and Gracie Dooley in the last few weeks.
In the Minettes’ 3-2 victory over Rockbridge in the Region 3C quarterfinals, Whorley provided a solo homer in the sixth inning before notching the walk-off hit in the ninth. Dooley had the game-tying single in the final regulation inning.
Dooley and Whorley each went 2 for 3 with two RBIs in a 5-3 Region 3C semifinal victory, while Flood blasted a solo homer.
“I’ve been more aggressive at the plate, I think, and [developed] more confidence with each hit that I get,” Dooley said. “Just looking for something to drive really hard.”
And Dooley and Whorley accounted for LHS’ two runs in the Class 3 quarterfinals, a 2-0 win over Staunton River.
“That might have something to do with playing some of those closer games,” Thompson said of his player’s recent offensive breakthroughs, referring to the 15 games they’ve played that have been decided by two runs or fewer.
The coach knows his team, whose six losses have come by a combined eight runs, is battle tested.
“I told them that we wouldn’t go on this run if we didn’t have those close games, win or lose. I feel like we played almost exactly the same way last year as we did this year. Some people were saying, ‘What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with [pitcher] Millie [Thompson]?’ Nothing,” Mike Thompson said. “We’ve played exactly the same way we did last year. We won some 2-1 games last year, and we lost some 2-1 games this year.
“But that’s one of those things that you can’t practice. You can’t practice being in the seventh inning of a 2-1 game. You don’t know what you don’t know. You’ve gotta be in that situation.”
Millie Thompson, the Minettes’ junior left-hander, says the Seminole District competition they faced in the regular season is the preparation they’ll rely on to help them accomplish their ultimate goal.
And, of course, LHS will look once again to Millie Thompson to deliver in the circle, as she has all season.
She’ll be tasked with shutting down a team that hits .392 and scores 8.83 runs per game, but with her ever-present confidence — and the impressive stats to back it up, including a whopping 241 strikeouts and 0.77 ERA in 173 innings — Thompson isn’t worried.
“Obviously it’s more pressure because it’s do-or-die,” she said, “but that’s how it has been, and we’ve handled it well.
“This has been my goal since I was a kid. Before I got to college, I want have something that … meant something to me. Having that ring or having that trophy that I can look on forever, that would be amazing.”
Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.