It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after last season being wiped out by Covid-19, but the Greenwood Lady Bulldogs fell just short of their goal of winning the 2021 state title in Class 5A softball. The GHS girls lost to the Benton Lady Panthers last Thursday afternoon, 8-1, in the 5A championship game played at Benton under threatening skies.
The weather forecast for Central Arkansas called for a good chance of showers, but somehow the rain stayed away for the most part. Benton High School hosted the state finals, played for the last several years on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. But a fatal combination of early defensive miscues by Greenwood, homeruns by Benton, and a dormant offense by Greenwood doomed the Lady Bulldogs in their pursuit of the school’s second state title.
Their one championship during the fast-pitch era came in 2015, though they have been on the cusp several other times, often playing second fiddle to Sheridan High School, a perennial softball power in Class 5A. The Lady Yellowjackets had won the last four state crowns but were upset in the quarterfinals of the playoffs this season. Greenwood did win a slow-pitch state title in the late 1990s under former head coach Greg Grant.
Current Head Coach Ronnie Sockey is in his ninth season at Greenwood and has been hugely successful in turning the GHS program into an annual title contender, winning 20 or more games almost every season. The GHS girls finished this season at 25-9 after notching three wins last week in the state tournament at Mountain Home. Benton finished a perfect 31-0.
The 2021 state tournament started on Thursday, May 13th. As the top seed from the 5A West, the Lady Bulldogs were pitted against Lake Hamilton, the #4 seed from the South. But what appeared to be a mismatch on paper turned out to be a good game and much closer than expected. Greenwood won the pitching duel 3-0 to advance to the second round.
The contest was scoreless through 3½ frames before the Lady Bulldogs broke through in the bottom of the fourth inning with a pair of runs, taking advantage of two fielding errors by Lake Hamilton. Greenwood then added one more run in the fifth while GHS pitchers Haven Clements and Tori Howard completed the seven-inning shutout.
Clements started in the circle for the Lady Bulldogs and pitched six strong innings for the win, walking two batters and striking out three. Howard relieved in the seventh and retired the side in order for the save. Greenwood out-hit the opposition six to one and played flawless defense.
Lake Hamilton pitching retired the first eight GHS hitters until a single by senior outfielder Kinley Fisher in the bottom of the third inning. A walk followed, but a hard hit ball by senior Ally Sockey was caught in left field to end the scoring threat. However, Greenwood’s next at bat in the fourth inning proved decisive.
Sophomore Mady Cartwright started the frame with a lead-off hit to centerfield and later advanced to second on an error. She then scored on a two-out RBI triple by Macey Cutsinger, who also scored one batter later after another Lake Hamilton error. Kinley Fisher led off the fifth with a double and later scored on a sacrifice fly by Sockey.
Fisher, Cutsinger, and Cartwright accounted for all of Greenwood’s six hits, with two knocks each, with Cutsinger and Sockey picking up one RBI each. Two of the three runs scored were earned as Greenwood moved on to round two of the playoffs.
The Lady Patriots jumped out to a 2-0 lead the next day (Friday), despite getting only one hit in the opening frame. A pair of walks and a Greenwood error allowed two runs to cross the plate before GHS pitching retired 10 of the next 11 Marion hitters. But the GHS offense soon rallied to win the game by a score of 11-5.
Freshman Tori Howard started in the circle for Greenwood and pitched into the seventh inning before being relieved by Clements, who got the final out to shut down a Marion rally as the Lady Pats scored three times in the frame. Howard gave up six hits, three walks, and three runs in notching the pitching victory.
Offensively, the Lady Bulldogs seized control of the game with a five-run second inning, then added four more runs in the fifth and two more in the sixth. They mustered a dozen hits for the game and took advantage of five Marion errors. Eight of Greenwood’s 11 runs were earned.
Macey Cutsinger and Natalie Thomas both had three hits for the GHS girls, and Cutsinger added three RBIs as well with hits in the second, fifth, and sixth innings. Mady Cartwright had two RBIs on a fifth inning double and a sixth inning sac fly. Six other Lady Bulldogs had hits and five more had single RBIs.
The Lady Bombers somehow upset the four-time defending state champion Sheridan Lady Yellowjackets in the quarterfinals to face Greenwood in Saturday’s semifinals. Both teams hailed from the 5A West and the last time they met the Lady Bulldogs demolished the Lady Bombers in a doubleheader sweep by a combined score of 27-0.
But just when last week’s rematch appeared to be a repeat of their previous games, Mountain Home regrouped and made things interesting. After jumping out to a 7-0 lead after two innings, Greenwood’s bats were stymied the rest of the way and the Lady Bombers rallied with five runs of their own to make it close. But neither team scored over the final three innings and the Lady Bulldogs held on for the 7-5 victory.
Greenwood scored five times in the opening frame, then twice more in the second. Four of the first five GHS hitters drew walks, and all of them eventually scored. A one-out walk forced home the first run just ahead of Macey Cutsinger’s two-RBI single and a two-run double by Claire Chapple. A double by senior Chelsi Possage, a single by Ally Sockey, and another error led to two more runs in the second. Both frames were played in a steady light rain.
Mountain Home pitcher Lauren Loving shook off her rough start after the rain ended, retiring 15 of the last 16 Greenwood batters she faced. But the damage was done, and the deficit was too much for Mountain Home to overcome.
Pitcher Haven Clements started the game for Greenwood, but left the circle after giving up three walks, two hits, a hit batsman, and four runs in the third inning, giving way to Tori Howard, who finished the contest. The duo allowed just four hits in the game and struck out five.
Ally Sockey led Greenwood offensively, going 2-for-2 with a double and two runs scored. Chelsi Possage had a double along with Claire Chapple and Macey Cutsinger. The latter two also drove in two runs each. Sockey and Possage, who have played together for many years, are both Lady Razorback signees and will continue their softball careers on The Hill in Fayetteville next season. Three other Lady Bulldogs will also played college ball in 2022.
In recent years the state’s high school baseball and softball title games have been played at Baum Stadium and Bogle Park on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. But the Razorbacks (40-10) and Lady ‘Backs (41-9) are having great seasons this spring and were both playing at home during championship week.
The Arkansas men’s team is #1 in the nation and the Arkansas women are ranked in the top ten nationally and were chosen to host an NCAA regional this weekend. So this year’s 5A state championship game was played at Benton this past Thursday afternoon, giving home field advantage to the Lady Panthers, who entered the game unbeaten at a remarkable 30-0.
Benton loaded the bases in the bottom of the first inning on a single, a walk, and a hit batsman, but did not score after GHS starter Haven Clements got a called third strike for the final out. However, the Lady Panthers scored five unearned runs in the second on three GHS errors and a pair of back-to-back homeruns by dynamic duo Alyssa Houston and Riley Gilmore. Both girls also homered again in the game.
Clements was undone by the errors and was relieved in the second inning by Tori Howard after the back-to-back dingers. Howard then finished the game and the three earned runs scored by Benton came off her and the two long balls hit later by Houston and Gilmore.
Benton’s second inning outburst came with two outs. With a runner on first, a misplay in the outfield extended the inning, followed by a pair of infield errors on the next batted ball, bringing Houston to the plate. Her two-run blast made it 4-0 and Gilmore’s solo bomb added insult to injury. All five runs were unearned and uncharacteristic of Greenwood’s defense.
After the game, Coach Sockey talked about the decisive second frame. "That inning we had a chance to get out [of it], but [we had] a tough break and they [started] hitting on us. We missed on some spots and [Benton] is a great hitting team. That's the best hitting team we've seen all season besides Bentonville. They're the very best team we've played all season overall; pitching-wise, defensive-wise, hitting-wise. They had it all,” he said, complimenting the Lady Panthers.
Gilmore added her second home run in the fourth inning, a two-run shot to right center that made the score 7-0. In her last at-bat, Houston hit her 12th bomb of the season, clearing the wall in left field, making it 8-0.
But even with the game’s outcome all but certain, the Lady Bulldogs didn't give up. Greenwood avoided a shutout when Charlize Taylor tripled to start the top of the seventh, then scored on Macey Cutsinger's RBI single. Mady Cartwright, Chelsi Possage, and Ally Sockey also had nice defensive plays in the contest, preventing even more Benton runs.
"We stayed in it. We didn't give up," said Coach Sockey. "We competed hard. We competed hard at the plate. Our defense [also] stepped it back up a bit, but you can't make mistakes early in the game."
The Lady Panthers out-hit the Lady Bulldogs 9-6 and Benton’s defense played perfect in the field behind starting pitching Tuesday Melton, who went six innings before being relieved by Houston in the seventh. A Ouachita Baptist University signee, Melton retired Greenwood hitters in order in three of her six innings. She left the game after giving up the lead-off triple to Taylor and the RBI hit to Cutsinger. She was charged with Greenwood’s only run.
So another great season came to an end for the Lady Bulldogs, though not exactly as they had hoped. They were clearly one of the best teams in the state regardless of classification, but Benton was better, at least for that one game. Coach Sockey continues to do a marvelous job as head coach and the program is on strong footing with several very talented players returning next season, so the future is bright indeed.
Seniors Ally Sockey, Chelsi Possage, Kinley Fisher, Haven Clements, Natalie Thomas, and Gracie Been have given their all to maintain and build on the winning tradition Sockey has established at Greenwood. Despite the lost 2020 season, they can be proud of their accomplishments, and nearly all of them can look forward to continuing their athletic careers in college, either in softball or basketball. We thank them all for their hard work and dedication and wish them well in the future.