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2017 Lady Pioneers set tone for softball success
Jacob Dodd photos When the 2017 WCHS softball team clinched the program's second-ever trip to the region tournament, it was a celebration on the field. Pictured following a win over Rhea County are, from left, Lexie Chadwell, Ashton Whiles, Neva Tackett and Skyler Youngblood.

Games going around the clock. Hitting big bombs and crushing rivals. Claiming the program’s first piece of hardware. A roster stacked with future college players. The 2017 Warren County High School softball season had it all.

The recent run of Lady Pioneer dominance on the diamond all began in 2017. Teams of the past had made their runs at district titles and made trips to region, but none had hoisted a trophy saying champion until three years ago.

That special group did it in a big way, crushing Cookeville 20-3 in the regular season to stake its claim to the regular-season District 6AAA title. In the following years, the Lady Pioneers would go on to accomplish new firsts – the first district tournament title and home region game in 2018, the first region championship in 2019 – but most believe none of it would have happened without the 2017 group paving the way.

“That team set the tone for the recent success we’ve had as a program,” said coach Gooby Martin, who guided the run of success. “If you buy in, work hard, compete and put the team first, anything is possible. I’m really proud of those 17 girls and our staff that year. They really mean a lot to me.”

The abundance of talent was evident, especially as the starters got closer to graduation. Nine players from that year’s team have signed athletic scholarships to date, the last being freshman Makenna Mason making her pledge to play at Motlow next fall. Two – Savannah Cox and Bethany Porter – were soccer signees, but the rest – Mason, Skyler Youngblood, Neva Tackett, Lexie Chadwell, Ashton Whiles, Emily Mikkola and Hailey Wood – earned softball scholarships.

They all knew very early in 2017 they had what it took to succeed. 

“I always knew we had a special group of girls, we just could never find the right combination,” said Tackett, who started at multiple positions and led offensively with a .469 batting average and 25 RBIs. “We started winning game after game and achieving goals we had set and that’s when I knew this group of girls was going to do bigger thing than we had done in a very long time.”

Martin added, “I knew we had a chance to be special because we could really hit. Our hitting lineup was special. We were dominant with our 1-8 hitters on a nightly basis. It didn’t matter who we were facing, we were going to score runs.”

The offense showed its strength in the beginning of April, scoring 59 runs during a five-game winning streak. It started a run that would clinch a district title, but the offense saved its best for Cookeville when the title was on the line.

The Lady Pioneers crushed Cookeville, piling up 20 runs in just four innings. Younglood hit a grand slam in the fourth inning, while Kyra Hillis followed with a three-run blast minutes later. Whiles, who would later become the program’s home run queen, also went deep in the victory.

It was a statement victory that the players still remember.

“I don’t know what she threw or what I was thinking (before the pitch), but as soon as I made contact, I could hear my dad yell, ‘See ya ball.’ He’s always been my biggest fan,” said Youngblood on her grand slam.

“The energy that filled the dugouts and the stands was insane and made us want the ‘W’ even more,” added Hillis.

The victory completed a season sweep of Cookeville. Warren County had already beaten Cookeville earlier in the year in walk-off fashion.

“One of my biggest moments was hitting an inside-the-park home run to beat Cookeville. I’m not very fast and being a catcher, I always got a courtesy runner. When Gooby waved me home, I think I had every one nervous,” said Youngblood. 

If the excitement of the regular season crown wasn’t enough, the tournament provided a night at home that nobody has been able to forget. The Lady Pioneers were the host school for the 2017 District 6AAA tournament and it became an all-night affair.

After losing to Cookeville in the winner’s bracket finals, Warren County started on a Thursday afternoon knowing it would need to beat Rhea County to earn a region bid, then double-dip the Lady Cavaliers the same night to earn the tournament title.

They nearly did it, playing seven straight hours before losing to Cookeville in extra innings in the if-necessary championship game.

“That whole night was the biggest night for me. As a senior, it was a truly awesome moment to see the progress we had made in four years,” said Tackett. “Everyone was disappointed after the second game, but I just couldn’t be. I knew every girl on that field gave their all.”

“It didn’t matter that we had school the next day – all we cared about was winning,” said outfielder Hope Mullican. “We all had so much fun that night and the crowd was amazing, even at midnight.”

The all-night affair almost made players forget that just hours earlier, they had clinched the program’s second-ever trip to region with a 10-3 win over Rhea County. It was followed by a 4-2 win over Cookeville, which included senior Madison Mason tying the game with an RBI single in the sixth before Tackett had a sac fly in the seventh to give her team the lead.

Chadwell ended the game with a big defensive stand at first base.

“There was one out and we were ahead with a girl on first. I caught a line drive and tagged her out for the game-ending double play,” recalled Chadwell.

Martin was there to guide the team through all of it, including a program-changing win to start the night.

“My favorite moment was the day we clinched the region berth. We had to beat Rhea County, which had the best player in the district at the time. Getting over that hurdle was a huge relief,” said Martin. “Then we had to beat Cookeville twice after that on the same night. The atmosphere was so electric. We had fans all around the fence – it was literally standing room only.

“I was glad our girls had a chance to experience that feeling of playing in front of a packed house with the community there to support. We lost after midnight and had played for over seven hours. We played as hard as we could and came up a little short – Our effort was tremendous.”

The season ended days later when Warren County fell 7-6 at Soddy Daisy, a loss that still stings for all involved.

“We had a three-run lead going into the last inning. We had some calls go against us that swung the momentum in their favor – that’s a tough place to play at and win,” said Martin. “They are a powerhouse and we went there and gave them all they wanted. That loss fueled the teams after that season. We learned from that loss we had to finish games and get 21 outs.”

For the players who got to experience the later success, 2017 was a jump-off point for bigger things. But for three players – Youngblood, Tackett and Madison Mason – it was a perfect way to go out.

“I look back and wish I could do it all over again, not to do it better, but just to live in those moments all again,” said Tackett.

“The winning was fun, but feeling like a family is what really made the season the best. Having coaches like Gooby and Nick (Cantrell) made not only that season, but my team playing for Warren County special,” said Youngblood.

Mason added, “It’s an honor and something I’ll never forget. Coming back from an ACL tear my junior year and coach Martin believing in me – you can’t take that away. That team was authentic and genuine – the definition of what team is.”