By BEN JOHNSON
Britney Johnson is no stranger to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. Every year she’s donned Tahlequah’s orange and black, she has pitched for the Lady Tigers at the hallowed grounds in the state tournament.
Why have it any different this year?
Johnson made sure her senior season would end on Northeast 50th Street in the state’s capital by pitching Tahlequah to an 8-0 victory over Coweta in the regional tournament finals at Lady Tiger Field on Thursday.
“It’s a very exciting feeling, especially being a senior this year,” said Johnson, who pitched a two-hit, complete-game shutout with eight strikeouts.
“I’ve worked hard so hard to get to this point, and I’m just glad I could experience it with these girls. It’s awesome.”
Tahlequah (29-7) punched its ticket to the Class 5A state tournament for the third straight year by blasting Coweta for the second straight day. For Tahlequah coach Matt Cloud, its his third trip to the state tournament during his three-year tenure.
“I told the girls this: ‘you can’t take this for granted, because there could years where you don’t go back,’” said Cloud, whose team posted a 12-2 victory in the regional semifinals on Thursday. “...I also told them: ‘savor the moment, because there are a lot of high schools kids that never get to experience the state tournament.’”
The regional championship game was never in doubt once Tahlequah took a 3-0 lead in the second inning. Johnson, who finished 2 for 5 at the plate, drove in Tahlequah’s first two runs on a double, before Kirsten Chase was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to score Marisa Girdner for Tahlequah’s third run.
From there, Tahlequah kept methodically adding to its lead. Haley Martin’s RBI single in the third inning made it 4-0; Whitney Wright’s sacrifice fly in the fourth inning made it 5-0; Johnson’s infield single scored a run in the fifth to make it 6-0; and Martin’s two-run single in the sixth bumped Tahlequah’s run total to eight.
Tahlequah collected 12 hits as a team. Martin had a team-high three hits, while Randee O’Donnell and Dry joined Johnson with two hits apiece.
“At the beginning of the season, I was kind of not myself; I wasn’t hitting great,” said Dry, who notched a double and a triple and scored three times. “But, I feel like I’m getting there.”
Coweta’s only two hits came courtesy of a Jordan Graham single in the fourth inning and Morgan Hughes’ double in the seventh inning. Coweta, also, never advanced a runner past second base, and it only did that twice (Hughes both times, in the second and seventh innings).
“Britney threw a really nice game,” Coweta coach Rodney Bowen said of Johnson. “It’s hard to win games like that.”
By winning the regional crown, Tahlequah halted Coweta’s four-year run of making consecutive state-tournament appearances.
“If we beat Collinsville in the last week of the (regular) season, we host [a regional tournament],” said Bowen, whose team lost to Collinsville, 5-2, on Sept. 17 and fell to third place in District 5A-4, which meant playing on the road in the playoffs.
“But that’s just how it goes. We get sent here and it is what it is.”
Coweta, who finished the season 18-18, had its best chance to score in the second inning when Madison Vaughan — who pinch-hit for Hayley Dodson with a walking boot on her left leg — came to bat with one out and Hughes on second. However, Vaughn — Coweta’s starting shortstop, who suffered a leg injury early on in the season — struck out, and so did Kassidy Smith right after her.
“We got the bat taken out our hands a little bit,” Bowen said of Vaughn, who struck out looking. “That could have been a big morale booster if we get a chance to swing, but we don’t and that’s how it goes.”
If Johnson (18-6) had it her way, she’d pitch against Coweta three times in the state tournament. In three appearances against Coweta this season, Johnson allowed only two runs on four hits in three easy Tahlequah victories.
“I honestly thought they would be better,” Johnson said, “but we took it to them every time.”
Tahlequah heads to the state tournament on a five-game winning streak, in which Tahlequah is averaging 9.6 runs per contest.
“It seems like every other day someone else has a big day,” Cloud said of his offense. “That’s what a team has to do; everybody has to step up, and if someone isn’t hitting, everyone has to play good defense.”
For Dry, a middle school career at Woodall meant she took in several ORES state tournaments. But she said she’s looking forward to her first state tournament at the varsity level.
“I’ve been to the ORES state tournament, and it’s a cool experience,” Dry said. “ But this is so much more bigger to be a part of. It’s just awesome.”
In 2011, Tahlequah was the runner-up in the 5A state finals, losing to Carl Albert on the final day of the season. Cloud said his club is heading to central Oklahoma with one word in mind: “finish.”
“We have one goal and that’s to finish,” he said. “We go to the semifinals (in 2010) and get beat, then we go to the finals (in 2011) and get embarrassed. Our goal now is to finish it.
“We’re going to take Friday and Saturday off and come in on Sunday and hit it hard on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and know that we gave it all we could. We’ll do everything we can to finish the deal; we just have to play good for three more days.”