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Missy Gators’ season ends with playoff loss to New Hope

A wild week for Vicksburg High’s softball program ended in shallow right field Thursday night. Tears flowed. Hugs were exchanged. There was even a celebratory lap to thank a loud sellout crowd for supporting the team in one of the most anticipated games in years.

Everything was perfect for the Missy Gators, except for the result that led to that moment.

Two days after they had seemingly secured a series-clinching victory over New Hope and one day after it was taken away in a boardroom, the Missy Gators succumbed to their own mistakes. A series of errors in the middle innings allowed New Hope to erase a three-run deficit and beat Vicksburg 9-5 in the deciding Game 3 — or Game 4, depending on how you look at it — of their second-round MHSAA Class 5A playoff series.

New Hope (13-9) advanced to play Saltillo in the third round beginning Monday.

“I’m wore out, but I’m not as wore out as what these girls are,” Vicksburg head coach Brian Ellis said. “They showed character. They showed pride in their school, pride in themselves, and everybody needs to take notice of this group of girls and what they did, knowing what the pressure was on them and the rollercoaster ride they were on this week.”

New Hope won the first game of the series 11-1 on Monday, but Vicksburg came back to win Games 2 and 3 on its home field Tuesday night — until New Hope coach Casey Finch-Halford claimed an illegal ball had been used and filed a protest with the umpires late in Game 3.

The protest was upheld Wednesday by the Mississippi High School Activities Association. Vicksburg’s 9-6 win was taken off the books and Game 3 was ordered to be replayed Thursday, in accordance with MHSAA rules.

“I don’t have anything negative to say about the week,” Finch-Halford said after Thursday’s game.

The Vicksburg Warren School District sold 250 advance tickets online in less than 24 hours after Game 4 of the series was announced, and the crowd was loud and supportive throughout. It hit its peak early when the Missy Gators — the visiting team because of a coin flip — jumped out to a 3-0 lead.

Lexi Kistler, whose home run Tuesday triggered New Hope’s protest, hit the first pitch she saw Thursday for a two-run homer and added an RBI single an inning later.

Unfortunately, the Missy Gators stalled out after that. They hit 10 balls to the warning track or deeper, but only three dropped in for hits — Kistler’s homer, a double by Jamie Ward that immediately preceded it, and another solo home run by Kellisia Walker in the sixth inning.

“We put the barrel on the ball, but not all the way. We were just a little bit off. So obviously the ball wasn’t the situation,” Ellis said with a hint of sarcasm. “We still hit the ball out. We didn’t get timely hits when we needed them.”

At the same time, New Hope used the opposite tactic to get back in the game and eventually surge in front. Vicksburg committed four errors in the fourth and fifth innings combined, which put runners on base and led to eight runs. The Trojans kept the pressure on with a series of bunts that led to indecision and mental mistakes by Vicksburg’s fielders.

After tying the game without getting a hit in the fourth inning, New Hope’s only hits during a six-run fifth were a pair of bunt singles and a two-run single up the middle by Zoe Goodman. Goodman’s hit put New Hope ahead 9-3.

“They stayed with it. They got themselves back in the game and were able to play the small ball. It worked, and we got caught up in it and didn’t get the outs,” Ellis said. “I knew they were going to do it and we just didn’t make the plays. Two of those, we probably had outs and we didn’t get them. One of them, we didn’t throw the ball.”

Down big and with their chances dwindling, the Missy Gators did not go quietly. Walker’s home run led off the sixth, and Kistler drove in a run with a sacrifice fly to cut it to 9-5. Lexi Kistler finished the game 2-for-3 with four RBIs.

Lili Kistler and Trinity McGloster then led off the seventh with singles. A pinch-runner for McGloster was doubled off first on a fly out to right field, however, and from there it was only a matter of time. Avery VanNorman worked a two-out walk for one last glimmer of hope, and then her sister Charli hit a fly ball to right that Annie Woolbright caught for the final out of the game.

“We started out winning two games Tuesday and thought we’ve got it. And then she just came and did what she did and took us all down,” said Ward, who had two hits and scored a run. “We came out today and fought and never gave up. We had the little errors that got away from us and that’s what got us.”

After the game, the Missy Gators gathered for a postgame meeting a few steps from where Woolbright caught the last out. A moment later, Ellis urged them to go thank the fans and the players did more. They took a victory lap from foul pole to foul pole, waving to the fans and passing by New Hope’s players who had gathered for their own meeting in left field.

Afterward they hugged and cried. One young player gave all of her teammates bracelets as a keepsake. Ellis had left them alone by that point, but in another part of Vicksburg’s softball complex he was beaming with pride at how they had handled a difficult situation.

“They didn’t put their heads down. They didn’t cry because of the protest. They didn’t even say anything about it. They didn’t say anything about it yesterday. They let it go. And that’s probably one of the biggest things that I’m proud of,” Ellis said. “I have a special group of kids. That’s the reward for me. That’s the thing that gets emotional for me.

“They had every right to be angrier than anybody in the world,” Ellis continued. “They decided to take the victory lap. It’s incredible, but that’s what these girls are about. I can’t explain how proud I am.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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