MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Looking to send a message of confidence to her young team, Silverdale Baptist Academy softball coach Jackie Freeland had checked the Lady Seahawks out of their hotel Thursday morning.
The backup plan meant the group would have been left scrambling, but thanks to another clutch performance, that wasn't needed.
Junior Ella Cunningham pitched a five-hit, nine-strikeout gem and drove in both of her team's runs in a 2-1 win over Columbia Academy in the Division II-AA softball final, securing the second TSSAA state championship in program history.
"We would've found a place to check back into if we had to, but our mindset was to get it done today," Freeland said. "We had to finish it, because if you let a team like that hang around, then they've got the momentum and are a lot more dangerous.
"Our kids have got the fight, the heart, the grit and the resilience it takes against tough competition. We've had that all year."
On the way to winning its first state title since 2018, Silverdale opened the tournament by rallying for three six-inning runs for a two-run win, then posted a pair of one-run wins over Columbia Academy — which had won the DII-A title at the Spring Fling the past two years.
The Lady Seahawks finished off their championship just moments before Baylor wrapped up its eighth straight DII-AA title on an adjoining field. Those wins ensured that at least one Chattanooga-area team has won a softball championship in each of the past 20 seasons, with eight different programs part of that run. Since 2002 — the last time there was not an area team that played for a title — there have been 32 state champions and 26 runners-up among area programs.
By the time the calendar flipped to May, Silverdale had split the regular-season series with Class 3A state tournament qualifier Soddy-Daisy and beat Baylor 5-0, a win that earned respect and instilled confidence in the Lady Seahawks.
"When we beat Baylor, I just felt like we got over a hump," Freeland said. "We hadn't beaten them in a long time, so for our program that was huge, because they're awesome. When we did that, I think our whole team felt like we could accomplish anything and play with anybody."
After two uneventful innings Thursday, the Lady Seahawks loaded the bases without the ball leaving the infield as Bita Cox reached on an error, Kennedy Stinson got on with a bunt single and Gabriella Hensley followed with an infield hit. With one out, Cunningham drilled the first pitch she saw down the left-field line to plate two.
"I knew she had thrown me all middle or out over the plate, so I told myself I needed to drive one out somewhere to the outfield," said Cunningham, who went 2-for-3 in the game. "Whether it was in the air or on the ground, it didn't matter, I needed to score those runs for us.
"Having a two-run lead felt pretty good because I trust my defense behind me and felt like it would be hard for them to score more than one on us."
Columbia Academy cut the lead in half in the sixth on Lila Pulley's RBI single, but with two more runners in scoring position, Cunningham struck out Carolina Johnson to end the threat.
"When she stepped in the box, I just knew I had to sit her down," Cunningham said. "Sit that girl down. That was the whole goal. I didn't care if it was a ground ball or strikeout, I had to sit her down."
Cunningham was dominant in the seventh, striking out two batters and coaxing a popup to sit the Lady Bulldogs down in order.
"Right before that last inning started, I looked at Ella and said, 'I know you're tired, but just give us whatever you have left.' She did, and it worked out just how we needed it to," Freeland said. "She's so tough. She got the timely hit when we needed it and then went out there and got the job done pitching. She was outstanding for the whole tournament, really."
Reminded that the roster loses just one senior, Freeland didn't shy away from the expectations for the future.
"We have three upperclassmen who took on the leadership role and made winning this their goal," Freeland said of her team, which had two juniors on the roster, plus five freshmen, four sophomores and two eighth graders. "They accomplished that today, and I know the expectation now is to come back her and win another one. We have to put in the work to get back here, but I think we can do it again."
Earlier Thursday in Class 3A, after taking a short-lived lead in the third inning on Grace Hixson's three-run home run, East Hamilton gave up two runs in the fourth and three more in the seventh and was eliminated by Gibbs, 7-3.
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].