E.A. Sports Today

Oxford eyes the prize

Lady Jackets’ post-season progression these past few years has left only one more hurdle to clear — winning a state title

By Brant Locklier
For East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD — It was the spring of 2014 and Oxford softball coach Wendy McKibbin stood out behind the right field fence with her tearful team after a loss in the regionals to Albertville 7-1 that eliminated it from play-off contention.

It was the start of a progression the Lady Jackets hope culminates in the ultimate prize next month – a state championship.

Follow the steps: Making it to the regionals. Making it to the state tournament and bowing out in two games. Making it to the state tournament and getting to the championship game. You know what comes next.

“It has gone fast,” senior pitcher JoJo Skinner said. ”This whole experience has meant the world to me. It is an exciting time and an anxious time. We have to play hard now and we want to win a state championship.”

“That is what we are playing for,” added fellow pitcher Rylee Waldrep.

There were a lot of things to be proud of on that tearful day in 2014 as the Yellow Jacket were taking the first step towards becoming one of the elite programs in the state. The Jackets went 1-2 in the regional, making it for the first time in anyone’s memory. They posted a 38-17 record and recorded an Area championship.

McKibbin, who has also built a powerhouse volleyball program at Oxford, told her team she was so proud of them that day and that there were a lot of freshmen and sophomores on the team and better days were coming.

Wow, was she ever right! The Jackets began to blossom in 2015, going 35-19-1 and making it through the regionals and a trip to state. They lost a lead in the opening round to a Wetumpka team that was going to win the state championship, 6-4 and then fell to Cullman 2-0. It was a season that featured nine one-run losses and a second straight Area title.

Oxford took the next step in 2016 and became one of the states elite. The Jackets played anyone and everyone that was any good and went 44-15, won the Area title and finished state runner-ups to area rival Chelsea losing 3-1 in the state championship game.

The Yellow Jackets lost twice to Chelsea in the state 6A playoffs, but had defeated them 3 times during the regular season including 1- 0 and 11-0 in the Area Tournament.

The heartbreak of 2016 has been the driving force for this team in the 2017 season. They have pounded out a 42-5-1 season against a brutal schedule justifying their No. 2 ranking in Class 6A. They have played 36 teams against ranked teams and are 30-5-1 in those games. They are an equally amazing 20-2 in games against 13 teams ranked in Class 5A and 6A.

Their area speaks for itself. Last year’s top two teams in the state came from Oxford and Chelsea. Pell City, also in the area, was ranked fourth in the state and it could not get out of the area.

Area re-alignment this year moved Chelsea out of the area, but moved Southside in and Southside finished third in the state last year. Oxford knocked them out of the championship with a 1-0 victory.

“It has taken a lot of hard work to get our program where it is at,” Oxford athletics director Larry Davidson said. “Wendy works hard every day. She takes those kids and gets them to believe in the program and what she is doing and is just doing a great job.

“You have to have the right person driving the bus and she is that person. We judge success at Oxford not by wins, but how we are teaching kids the right way of doing things and how to be successful in life. That is what Wendy does.

“I told her, after last year, to enjoy the success. It is so hard to get there every year, no matter the sport. A lot of things have to go your way. A lot of other intangibles have to bounce your way. It is special to get to a state championship game and you never know when you will ever get back, so just enjoy the moments.”

Five seniors who were recognized during Friday night’s game with Moody have been at the heart of this run.

Pitchers Skinner and Waldrep have been relentless in the circle, winning 18 to 19 games a year and throwing nothing but strikes. Shortstop Kaylynn Garrett has had her share of injuries during this run, but she has been nothing short of brilliant in the field and her speed on the base paths has kept opponents bewildered and rattled. Outfielder Amber Dempsey has been an anchor on defense and has had big play after big play when her team needed it; she was the MVP of the Calhoun County Tournament. Haley Lyner has held down centerfield forever, amazing with her fielding and even more amazing with the power at the plate.

These girls have been four-year starters, some longer and there are more sophomores and freshman playing this year that look to anchor the team for the next few years.

Senior Shelby Hicks is also winding down her career, but she has just transferred in for her senior season from Leeds and has been a major contributor in the field and at the plate.

The Lady Jackets are now the hunted instead of being hunter and as they get ready to enter this year’s playoff run, the expectation is another deep run in the playoffs and a shot at a state championship.

”I have gone through a lot of injuries and have fought through all of them,” Garrett said. “It is a bittersweet time, but we have to be ready and our hopes are to close out and win it all.”

“We have to go back to practice and work harder,” Lyner said. “We have to be more focused. Anybody can beat us on any night if we do not play well.”

The game the Lady Jackets played Friday was a perfect reminder of that.

Fifth-ranked Class 5A Moody (27-12) took advantage of an Oxford error in the first inning and made it stand up to knock off the Yellow Jackets 2-1.

Oxford (42-5-1) had seven hits and only had two batters strike out, but just hit everything right at someone. Sarah Howell and Garrett had two hits apiece and Moody pitcher Madison Sanders did not walk anybody in picking up the win.

The Jackets used the rotation that was so successful last year on the road to the state championship game. Senior pitchers Rylee Waldrep and Jo Jo Skinner will pitch to nine hitters and then switch. Waldrep fanned six, Skinner two and they scattered 7 hits.

The area tournament starts Tuesday in Oxford and the legacy will soon close on these seniors. Whatever the outcome, these seniors have set the tone for future Oxford softball team and will be remembered as the group that brought the program to the highest level.

Of course, they’re shooting for it to end at the absolute top. The path they’ve traveled the last five years has certainly led them there.

Moody 2, Oxford 1
Moody 110 000 0 — 2 7 2
Oxford 000 010 0 — 1 7 1

WP: Sanders. LP: Waldrep. 2B- Cash (M),

You must be logged in to post a comment Login