(Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Heading into the District 1-AAA softball tournament today, Science Hill has a pitcher’s chance.
Much like the term of a puncher’s chance in boxing, it’s a way of saying a good pitcher gives a softball team the opportunity to win. It’s definitely the case for the Lady ’Toppers, who have two strong arms with senior Emma Martindale and junior Vanessa Elliott.
Martindale, who has signed with ETSU, has been a first-team, All-Big Eight Conference selection each of the last three seasons. Although the Lady ’Toppers have stumbled down the stretch and have just a 17-19-1 overall record, Martindale remains confident they can make some noise in the postseason.
“We have to decide how we’re going to play,” she said. “We can beat anyone at any given point or we can lose to anyone at any given point. We have to keep our focus and keep our minds right. We just have to focus and get the job done. We can’t keep runners on base and make those silly errors. We have a young team, but we have a lot of talent.”
Head coach Jerry Higgins agrees with her assessment and said if his team hits on all cylinders, Science Hill can beat anybody. It was proven Tuesday when the Lady ’Toppers scored a 6-6 tie in a rain-shortened game at Big Seven Conference champion Volunteer.
On the flip side, the Lady ’Toppers have struggled at the plate, where as a team they have a .257 batting average and a .315 on base percentage.
“We knew from the get-go it would be a challenging year, especially with the bats,” Higgins said. “Those two were the only two who returned to our whole varsity team from last year who hit in the lineup. We knew it would be a struggle, hitting this year.”
The biggest difference for the pair of pitchers has been a lack of run support where the Lady’Toppers have scored 152 runs in 37 games, just over four runs per game. It’s nearly an average of two runs per game less than Science Hill scored last season.
It has affected Martindale whose record is 6-8 with a 1.79 ERA. It also affected the overall team’s fortunes over the second half of the season.
“We’ve lost 10 of 14, and they’ve all been by three runs or less,” Higgins said. “The most we’ve been beaten by is nine runs. If we had anybody with the experience to step in there and hit it out of the park, it might be a little different. They’ve pitched better this year than they did last year, but we’ve not had the offensive boom we’ve had in years past.”
The close losses have led to some frustration, especially after a pair of extra-inning affairs against rival Daniel Boone.
Martindale was the starter in both Boone games, and went the distance in the first game before the Lady ’Blazers scored six runs in the top of the ninth.
“The toughest part of this season has been losing so many close games,” she said. “After pitching nine innings and losing the first game to Boone, that one was really tough for me. The whole time I was pitching against them the second game, I was thinking, ‘This is your chance.’ It’s tough losing those close games, but I would rather be in a close game like that than to be in a blowout.”
Elliott, who is 11-8 with an 0.84 ERA, can sympathize with her. She was in the circle the final five innings of the second Boone game. She dealt with the frustration of a non-call when her team argued it should have been a third strike to end the game in the seventh inning. It became more frustrating after Science Hill lost a 2-1 game on an error in the 10th inning.
“Those close losses have been so tough for me personally,” said Elliott, who was chosen the team’s Most Valuable Player the previous season. “I’ve been pitching and working hard and then we’ve not been able to pull out those wins. Our team works hard and it’s hard when we give our all and we’re not able to win those close games. But it’s like Emma said, I would rather be in those games than to be in a blowout.”
Even with so many tough losses, Martindale has enjoyed her senior season. Life has been good for her on the Hill where she was the libero on the volleyball team back in the fall. Outside of sports, she has taken dance since the age of three, and feels that activity has helped her avoid a lot of injuries.
She’s also brought a different attitude to the field for her final prep season.
“I thought this is my last year so I can lay back and have fun, although I still want to be competitive because that’s my nature,” she said. “But, I think I’ve relaxed a lot more this year.”
Don’t associate the use of the word relaxed as not trying as hard. Elliott praised the effort Martindale gives and how they work together as teammates and friends.
“I love playing with Emma,” she said. “I know she’s going to give her all when she’s pitching. When I’m in center field, I’m going to do my all to help her and I know when she’s at shortstop, she’s going to do all she can to help me out. I know if I’m struggling, she can come in for me, and if she’s struggling, I can go in for her. I love having that relationship with Emma.”
They’ve shared in a lot of big moments. Two years ago, the Lady ’Toppers set school records with 40 wins and 355 runs in a season.
While those numbers are well out of reach for this season, Elliott believes a recent team meeting brought everyone closer, and if they all work together, they have a chance for big things in the postseason.
It is a chance which Martindale and Elliott give them, although their head coach admitted there are times he has asked them to shoulder too heavy of a load.
“I’ve caught myself several times expecting too much out of them, especially with the bats,” Higgins said. “That might have added some pressure to them that wasn’t warranted. But, they’re obviously the two with the most experience, the two with the most talent and you want them to shoulder that load.”