Playoff newcomer takes aim at perennial threat

Two fastpitch softball programs – one with a championship tradition and one a novice in postseason play – meet this week in the 3A state quarterfinals.
Tonight’s home team in Game 1, the Houston Lady Hilltoppers (17-8), had never been past the first round until this season’s playoffs.
The visiting team, Mooreville (19-8-2), has won 11 consecutive division titles and two state championships – 2003 and ’06.
“We know we’ll be facing tough competition,” Houston coach Keith Jernigan said. “Mooreville’s been there and done that a couple of times.”
But Jernigan’s not discounting his team’s chances in the best-of-three series.
Game 2 and Game 3, if needed, will be played Saturday at Mooreville.
The Hilltoppers, who are 4-0 in the playoffs with sweeps of Ripley and Kossuth, have a freshman left-hander on the mound in Haley Gravat.
“She’s done a tremendous job for us,” Jernigan said.
The coach also looks to his two seniors, outfielder Paige Smith and first baseman Dominique Moore, for offensive and defensive punch. Smith is batting a team-high .475 while Jernigan calls Moore “a tremendous defensive player.”
Defense is key
Houston’s turned to its defense throughout the postseason.
“We haven’t hit as well in the playoffs because we’re facing better pitching,” Jernigan said. “The key’s been our defense. It’s pulled us through in the playoffs.”
Mooreville, which swept Lewisburg last week to reach the quarterfinals, looks to senior Laura Mitchell (14-4) on mound. At the plate, the Troopers are led by junior third baseman Shelby Jackson, who’s batting .506, and sophomore shortstop Kelsey Miller, who’s hitting .391. Jackson paced the team with four base hits in the two-game Lewisburg series.
“We rely on Mitchell a lot,” Mooreville coach Perry Wilburn said. “I think we’ve played pretty well to be such a young team.”
Mooreville returned just one player from 2008 in the same position – Mitchell.
“We’ve moved some players around,” Wilburn noted. “We lost five seniors, so we’ve been starting two to three ninth graders.”
Neither coach knows exactly what to expect today.
“I just know the games get harder each week,” Wiburn said.
Added Houston’s Jernigan, “We’re excited to be in the playoffs. Our girls have accepted this challenge.”

Gene Phelps/Daily Journal