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Steward sends Spring Garden back to the state softball tournament – WEIS
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Steward sends Spring Garden back to the state softball tournament – WEIS

The Spring Garden Lady Panthers defeated Cedar Bluff, Ragland and Appalachian to qualify for the state tournament on Wednesday at Sand Mountain Park in Albertville. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

ALBERTVILLE – Spring Garden junior softball pitcher Avery Steward knew Wednesday would be a long day.

It actually turned out to be a slightly longer day than even she expected with a lightning 43-minute delay in the third of three games, but neither that nor throwing three games in one day fazed her.

Steward posted victories in the circle against rivals Cedar Bluff (11-4), Ragland (5-4) and Appalachian (12-6) and helped Spring Garden claim the second Class 1A East Regional Qualifier spot at Sand Mountain Park in Albertville. The Lady Panthers return to the state tournament, where they will face Central Regional champion Maplesville on Tuesday at 10:45 a.m.

“It was definitely a crazy day, especially with the rain delay,” Steward said. “I liked that because it gave me a few minutes to take a break and just relax a little bit. It was useful.

“I definitely tried not to let too many people out and throw as few pitches as possible because I knew it was going to be a long day. We should have won three games.”

Spring Garden head coach Ann Welsh said Steward threw “in a zone” on Wednesday.

“You just look at her and she has a different mentality,” Welsh said. “She knew this morning that these three games were hers, and she was mentally prepared for that.”

So did the rest of the Lady Panthers. In every game they delivered the right hits and scored multiple runs in multiple innings.

“Our offense definitely came through today,” Steward said. “We were hitting the ball.”

“I was happy with the way we hit all day,” Welsh said. “We did a good job of getting the runners moving for the most part.”

But the day did make Welsh a little nervous.

The Lady Panthers played Cedar Bluff for the sixth time this season early Wednesday morning before advancing in the afternoon against a Ragland team that has been a perennial state tournament qualifier.

To wrap things up in the nightcap, Spring Garden battled a rested Appalachian team that the Lady Panthers had recently parted ways with to end the regular season.

“Every game today made me nervous in more ways than one,” Welsh said. “Besides going home, I know how hard we worked and what we did all week to prepare. We talked a lot about what we want from the end of the season. We have achieved our first goal, which was to gain territory. Now we have qualified for the state from the regions. We still have a number of plans ahead, but we will implement them step by step.”

Certainly nothing was handed to the Lady Panthers during the East Regional. They earned it.

And Welsh couldn’t be more proud.

“After our second game (an 8-1 loss to Skyline on Tuesday), we talked about just taking a different path. We have to take it one game at a time, but we know we want to achieve three. That’s our thing this year, one inning at a time, one batter at a time, one out and one pitch at a time. I felt like we did a great job of just doing the little things to get us to the big picture. I thought we did a great job all day.”

But there is still some unfinished business for the Lady Panthers to take care of on Tuesday at Choccolocco Park in Oxford.

“I’m really excited that we’re going back,” Steward said. “I think it means a little more this year because we had to come back through the losers’ bracket and just fight to find our way there. Next week will be very tough, but I think this has prepared us very well.”

Spring Garden’s Avery Steward delivers a pitch against Spring Garden Wednesday morning at Sand Mountain Park in Albertville. Photo by Shannon Fagan.