Down to the last pitch of the game, facing the demons of last year’s early postseason exit and on her Sophomore Day, Labette Cardinals shortstop Payton Nigh delivered a lifelong memory that helped propel the Cardinals to Topeka.
In Game 1 of the first round of the Region VI District E Tournament against the Fort Scott Greyhounds, the Cardinals trailed 2-0 going into the bottom of the seventh. After Rindy Marquez and Jaylen Hayward made their way on base, Nigh stepped up to the plate and worked the count full. With two outs, Fort Scott pitcher Delanie Freeze fired in a fastball inside.
Nigh squared up the ball and launched it over the center field fence — a no-doubter walk-off home run that gave Labette a 3-2 win.
“I knew I needed to put the ball in play,” Nigh said. “I was just trying to hit a ball in the gap. But once it was off the bat, I knew it was gone. When I was rounding the bases, I just wanted to cry.”
Labette then needed nine innings in Game 2 of the best-of-three series to down the Greyhounds as Julia Hawkins drew a bases loaded walk to walk off with a 5-4 win. That advances Labette to the four-team, double elimination bracket of the District E tourney in Topeka next weekend.
“Our girls showed a lot of character and a lot of fight,” Labette head coach Ryan Phillips said. “We knew Fort Scott was going to do everything to knock us off. They gave us two great games.”
Nigh had one of her most complete efforts of her career on Saturday, notching five hits and four RBI offensively over the two games. She also was flawless defensively, not committing any errors while also making two leaping catches at shortstop.
“She’ll remember that forever,” Phillips said of Nigh’s walk-off homer. “Deservingly so, too. That’s a teaching moment. She just came up and delivered. She’s really turned into a great leader not only physically but also keeping everybody focused. For me, that’s more impressive and exciting to see out of Payton.”
In the circle, Haylee Van Deventer earned both winning decisions for the Cardinals. The sophomore pitcher pitched 1.2 innings of relief in Game 1 then lasted all nine frames in Game 2.
Van Deventer joined legendary Labette alum Alex Brake, a two-time NJCAA Pitcher of the Year, as the only pitchers in Cardinals history to win two postseason games on the same day.
“Her role all year was exactly what she gave us today,” Phillips said. “That was coming in whenever we needed her and being effective. She showed maturity today that I hadn’t seen out of her. Today, holy moly, she did a tremendous job. She threw two great games.”
Van Deventer escaped a bases loaded, no outs jam in the top of the eighth inning in Game 2 without any runs crossing the plate, preserving a 4-4 tie.
“My goal when the bases were loaded was to get ground balls,” Van Deventer said. “I just wanted to pitch low. I threw a lot of drop balls. Audrey (Miller) knew what pitches to call too.”
One-and-a-half innings later, Labette won the game on Hawkins’ walk-off walk.
“It put the fight in me to not accept a loss,” Van Deventer said. “We’re all excited. We didn’t want to be done today. We have a long way to go.”
Labette survived a deadly outing in Game 1 from Fort Scott pitcher Delanie Freeze, who struck out 12 batters and didn’t allow a run through the first six frames.
“That girl threw a great game,” Phillips said. “Hats off to Delanie. She probably threw the best pitched game we’ve seen all year. Her ball was moving really well. We just came up with a couple of key hits here and there.”
Hawkins finished Game 2 with two RBI, while Miller added one with two hits in the second game. Gwen Smalley, returning to the lineup after missing 10 games due to injury, had an RBI single in Game 2 and drew a walk in Game 1.
“I thought her swing looked great,” Phillips said. “She’s getting back into the groove after not seeing live pitching for several weeks. She came up with some key at-bats. She just had a good approach at the plate all day.”
Saturday’s postseason series win comes one year after Labette failed to reach Topeka for the first time ever under the tournament’s current format.
“We’ve talked about being youthful throughout the entire season,” Phillips said. “At this point in the season, we should be mature and that should translate into this weekend and next weekend. But nobody had been here. The sophomores had a bad taste in their mouths from last year. They’re the ones that stepped up and guide us through today.”
The wins also came against a head coach Phillips is all-too-familiar with. Kae Lani Bryan, a former assistant at Labette under Phillips, saw her first year as head coach of Fort Scott come to an end on Saturday. The Greyhounds finished the season with a 13-33 record.
“They were one pitch away from winning in both games,” Phillips said. “They’re two pitches away from going to Topeka despite having minimal numbers and minimal opportunity to recruit and prepare. She got the job late over there. Today, she gave us two of the hardest fought games we’ve had here in years.”
The Cardinals’ overall record improved to 22-18 with the pair of victories — Labette is now guaranteed to break a two-year streak of losing seasons as it’ll finish above .500 this spring.
Labette will face the Cowley Tigers in the first game of the double elimination bracket in Topeka on Saturday at noon. Cowley swept Coffeyville in its first round series on Saturday. The winner of the bracket in Topeka wins a Region VI title and advances to the NJCAA National Tournament.
“At this point in the season, Xs and Os is minimal,” Phillips said. “We’ll try to fine tune some things in our swings, on defense and with our pitchers. But today’s games will be huge as far as motivation and incentive to continue to fight. We’re never out of any ballgame.”
REGION VI DISTRICT E TOURNAMENT — First Round
Labette 3, Fort Scott 2
Fort Scott: 010 001 0 — 2
Labette: 000 000 3 — 3
Labette: Jaylen Hayward 2 H, 1 R; Payton Nigh 2 H, 1 R, 3 RBI; Grey Holland 1 H; Jessica Allen 1 H; Rindy Marquez 1 R; Haylee Van Deventer (W) 1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 4 K; Lindzi Pellock 5.1 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 0 K
Fort Scott: Jordan Coddington 1 H; Abby Cox 1 H, 1 R; Andrianna Pedrow 1 H; Delanie Freeze 1 H, 1 R, 1 RBI; Jozee Bartlett 1 H; Freeze (L) 6.2 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 12 K
Labette 5, Fort Scott 4 (9 inn.)
Fort Scott: 100 200 100 — 4
Labette: 004 000 001 — 5
Labette: Jaylen Hayward 2 H, 1 R; Payton Nigh 3 H, 1 R, 1 RBI; Audrey Miller 2 H, 1 R, 1 RBI; Julia Hawkins 2 H, 1 R, 2 RBI; Gwen Smalley 1 H, 1 RBI; Grey Holland 1 H; Rindy Marquez 2 H; Adron Durman 1 R; Haylee Van Deventer (W) 9 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
Fort Scott: Olivia Chenoweth 1 RBI; Jordan Coddington 1 H, 1 R; Lane Bohlken 1 H; Abby Cox 2 H, 1 RBI; Andrianna Pedrow 2 H, 1 R; Delanie Freeze 1 H, 1 R, 2 RBI; Mackenzie Sample 1 R; Jozee Bartlett 2 H; Cox (L) 8 IP, 13 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 2 K