The Brookneal Belles will soon be competing in the Dixie Softball World Series. Getting there, and winning a state championship en route to their debut on the national stage, took a combination of skill and grit.
Head coach Thomas Short, who has been with the team for roughly the last seven years, said the girls have improved every single year. He said the team had to take a few licks in his early days of coaching, but over time the wins slowly piled up. After previously finishing runners-up in the district tournament they became district champions this year, allowing for their first-ever trip to the state tournament.
“We went to the state tournament not knowing what to expect you know, we’d never been there before,” Short said. “I’d said to myself and the coaches, we’d play our game and stay competitive. And we did it from the first game to the last.”
If the Belles took a stride forward each season before this year, it would seem they took a giant leap past their competition this Spring. In their first game of the state tournament, the Belles made quick work of South Hill, winning by slaughter rule in six innings with a final score of 14-3.
Next, they faced host team Dinwiddie, who they defeated handily 27-10. The Belles had already put up an eye-popping 67 runs in four games at the district level, before putting up a total of 41 runs in their first two games of the state tournament, a total that approaches the ridiculous.
But, it wasn’t all smooth-sailing for the Belles.
“We beat Dinwiddie and then went straight into playing Powhatan that night,” Short said.
After playing in the Summer heat that afternoon, the Belles found themselves in a tie game with their better-rested opponents after two innings.
“It was a really hard-fought game,” Short said. “Powhatan had an extremely good team.”
Powhatan was able to inch past the initial 3-3 stalemate, scoring 1 run in the fourth inning and another in the fifth. But, the Belles clawed back, scoring a pair of runs in the bottom of the fifth to even the score again at 5-5. Neither team scored in the sixth or seventh. Then, in extra innings Powhatan threatened to bring a swift end to the game with a barrage of runs in the eighth.
But before the bottom of the inning, Short said he reminded the team of their mantra for the tournament.
“All teams get pressed,” he said, “but good teams press back.”
Down by two, the Belles kept their wits about them and got Estella Short and Shakiah Braxton to second and third base. With a 3-1 count, Peighton Francis hit a shot into right field and both Braxton and Short scored to tie the game. Francis then advanced all the way to third base, nudged along by three straight balls from Powhatan’s pitcher. Then, Francis made a break for home when a pitch hit the ground and escaped the catcher’s grasp.
“She didn’t hesitate,” Short said.
Francis made it home and sealed an 8-7 win for the Belles. But their mission still wasn’t over, and the Belles faced Amherst the very next day.
“We never had a break the whole time,” Short said.
In typical fashion the Belles had a strong start in the Amherst game, but weren’t able to close out. Though Amherst won 13-11, because the Belles had not had a bye all tournament they advanced to the state championship game, for, they soon found out, a rematch against Amherst.
Finally rested, the Belles maintained their composure despite an early Amherst lead in the final. But, they bided their time and turned a 7-4 deficit into a 9-7 lead in the fourth inning. Amherst responded, scoring 3 runs in the sixth to take a 10-9 lead. Slowly building on that lead, Amherst pushed the score to 12-9. Then, Short said he and his fellow coaches reminded the team of their mantra.
“Now it’s time to press,” he said.
In the bottom of the seventh the Belles loaded the bases with three straight bunts. Brieanna Crozier was able to bring two runners home and come within one point of the lead when she drove a fast ball into left field. After three more batters, the Belles were able to load the bases again. Down 11-12 with the state championship on the line, Brealyn Nichols stepped up to the plate.
“She had come a long ways this season,” Short said about Nichols. “I had a lot of confidence in her.”
Nichols swung through on the first pitch but missed low. Short said she took a moment to collect herself, and swung through again on the second.
“Man, Brealyn hit a shot down the third baseline, right by the third baseman,” Short said.
That hit allowed Estella Short and Brieanna Crozier to score from second and third and sealed the Belle’s state championship-winning performance.
The Belles held a car wash and bake sale this weekend, raising enough money for a trip to this year’s Dixie Softball World Series in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. When asked about coaching the Belles this year, Short responded:
“It’s been an awesome experience.”
Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a run that Brieanna Crozier scored to another player.