Jeff Hurndon Photography / After three games in one day, Union Grove got to celebrate after defeating Pope for the Class AAAAA state championship in Columbus on Saturday.
McDONOUGH — There was a dogpile in centerfield in the middle of an inning. There was an inexplicable extra-inning, run-scoring wild pitch. There was a game-saving, gravity-defying diving catch on a bunt. There was a grueling three-game marathon with the entire season’s goal in the balance.
And in the end there was the pandemonium Union Grove softball hoped only it would get to feel this season after the Lady Wolverines defeated Pope, 4-3, in the decisive third game of the Class AAAAA finals in Columbus on Saturday.
Friday's print edition of the Henry Daily Herald will feature a special commemorative poster page looking back at Union Grove softball’s season and run to the Class 5A championship.
Union Grove ended its season 32-7-2 to capture the school’s first state championship in any team sport since it opened in 2000. The Lady Wolverines joined Eagle’s Landing (1999) and Eagle’s Landing Christian (2006-09) as county schools to win a softball state title.
“It was amazing,” Union Grove senior pitcher Megan Betsa said.
The Lady Wolverines sealed the 4-3 title-clinching victory only after junior Katie Spinks saved the day.
Union Grove led going into the top of seventh inning when the lead-off batter connected on a Betsa pitch. Lady Wolverines coach Rod Pipkin said it had the appearance of a home run headed over the centerfield fence.
Pipkin said Spinks was positioned deeper because of the circumstances. With a lead and the game — and title — at stake, there was no use letting a fly ball get over Spinks’ head for extra bases.
Spinks tracked the flight of the ball, raced toward the outfield fence and caught it. Her momentum created a scary collision with the collapsable fence, but Spinks held on.
“There really aren’t words for her catch,” Betsa said. “I couldn’t thank her enough. Who knows what would’ve happened.”
Betsa erased any chance of mystery. She promptly struck out the final two batters.
“It was kind of like, finally, state champions,” Pipkin said. “That’s what it kind of felt like. We felt like we’ve had good teams, but this team had a different attitude. It was humbled by last year, but so hungry to win it.”
Indeed, Union Grove had more than a good team last year going into Columbus. It was ranked No. 1 entering the Elite 8 with a veteran team, but went 1-2 for an early exit.
This time, with experience in the right places and young talent inserted in others, Union Grove rolled through Columbus, even overcoming a loss to Pope that forced the Lady Wolverines to come out of the loser’s bracket.
Speaking by phone Monday, Pipkin rattled off a list of momentum-changing and clutch plays that shaped Union Grove’s fortunes this past weekend.
In the Lady Wolverines’ second game, against fellow Region 4-AAAAA member Whitewater, Betsa made a split-second diving catch from the mound on a bunt in the seventh inning that helped seal a 1-0 victory.
Once Union Grove reached the finals again for a second match-up against Pope, it went to extra innings and high school softball’s international tie-breaker. The final out from the seventh inning started the eighth at second base. Meredith Wyre was in as a courtesy runner for catcher Courtney Kenney and wound up scoring from third on a wild pitch.
When Pope tried to bunt its runner to third, Betsa threw to senior shortstop Megan McConnell covering third to eliminate the potential tying run.
“We gambled,” Pipkin said. “It really was the players. They communicated so effectively.”
There were even more moments. Pipkin’s more structured practice after the loss to Pope. Haleigh Vernon’s two-run line drive in the final game to give Union Grove the lead it needed to win a state title. Pope pitcher Kelly Barnhill’s inexplicable loss of command after no-hitting the Lady Wolverines. McConnell’s motivation. Spinks’ dugout enthusiasm. Betsa’s guts.
It turned out to be a fitting exclamation point to what was an historical season.
“You probably remember the journey as much as the celebration,” Pipkin said. “The journey actually started three and four years ago with some of these kids. And the efforts they have made at practice and in the classroom and them telling you about travel ball and coming together as a team — you remember that more.”