MONTGOMERY — Colby would’ve loved it. A lot.
Spring Garden’s softball team, facing elimination and shaking off bitter disappointment from earlier Saturday, rallied for six runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to keep the Panthers’ state-tournament elimination game with Brantley alive.
Brantley, a perennial power with four state titles in the past five years, held on to advance to the Class 1A finals 12-7 at Lagoon Park, but Spring Garden kept sight of its bigger picture.
“We knew we wasn’t going to give up,” senior shortstop and Jacksonville State University signee Payton McGinnis said. “Everybody else knew we wouldn’t give up.”
Spring Garden, which finished 31-11 and third in the state tournament, played against a backdrop of tragedy. Senior football and baseball standout Colby Slayton died in an automobile accident Wednesday. His funeral is set for Sunday.
The Panthers made a run in Montgomery, playing their way into Saturday’s winners’ bracket final. Kylie-Grace Wood’s game-ending two-run home run in a 6-4 victory over Kinston on Friday got them there.
Spring Garden pushed Mars Hill Bible, which beat the Panthers at the North Regional, 10 innings before Hannah Henry’s game-ending three-run home run sent them to the elimination bracket, 4-1.
“We had a lot of time to kind of sit,” Spring Garden coach Ann Welsh said. “I feel like they handled it OK, but that’s tough, because you’re right there. You’re so close.”
With a berth in the 1A finals on the line, Brantley got out to an 11-1 lead, with Spring Garden down to potentially its final at-bat in the fifth inning. The Panthers weren’t having it.
Spring Garden quickly got the lead under the 10-run-rule threshold, and Abbey Steward capped the rally with a three-run bomb to center field to bring the Panthers within 11-7.
“We just had to score,” said Steward, Spring Garden’s sophomore pitcher/outfielder. “If we didn’t, we’d get beat, and we didn’t want it to be over.”
Spring Garden rallies are nothing new, but the Panthers made playing for Slayton a theme at state.
“We’re playing for something more than just ourselves right now,” McGinnis said. “From what we’ve overcome, there’s nothing we’re afraid of, and we knew we were doing it for somebody bigger than us, for somebody that would never want us to give up, and I thought we did a good job.”
Spring Garden will lose a senior class that includes two college signees, McGinnis to JSU and center fielder A.J. Broome to Southern Union. Over six years, dating back to seventh grade, both were major players for wildly successful softball and basketball programs.
Their credits include state basketball titles in 2016 and 2018 and a runner-up finish in 2017 and two third-place finishes in softball.
“It’s all been awesome,” Broome said. “Spring Garden sports, there’s just something different about it. All the teams support each other, and we’re all like one big team, boys and girls.”