GROVE- Looking for their first trip back to the state softball tournament since 2006, the Grove Lady Red will open regional tournament play at home on Wednesday.
The Lady Red, ranked fifth in Class 5A and heavily-favored to advance to state, have come a long way under first-year head coach Jeremy Collins, who has guided a young squad to a 26-6 record in 2010, just one year after the team went 13-16.
Following two wins at the Bixby Festival on Saturday over Sapulpa (4-1) and Choctaw (8-0), their final regular season games, the Lady Red has won 22 of their last 24 games.
“We’re playing well right now,” Collins said. “Our pitching has been really, really good.”
Led by junior Jessica Walker, the pitching staff has allowed just three runs over the last five games and has not allowed more than two runs in a game since a 3-0 loss to Sapulpa on September 10.
Walker recently notched a career-high 18 strikeouts in a 4-0 win over Pryor, a team that has been ranked in the top-six all season and is also hosting a regional. Walker has a 16-4 record on the season with 200 strikeouts in 112.3 innings. With seven shutouts on the season, Walker has an ERA of 0.75.
Backing up Walker has been senior Gregorye Epperson. In 50.33 innings this season Epperson has an ERA of 1.25 and a 7-2 record.
“Jesse’s been throwing extremely well,” Collins said. “She’s been doing a great job of keeping hitters off-balance. Whether it’s her or Gregorye, out pitching’s been fantastic.”
Leading the way offensively has been sophomore Taylor Dodson. Dodson has 9 of the team’s 13 home runs on the season, while also leading the team in RBIs (37), batting average (.483) and on-base percentage (.526). Walker is second on the team with 21 RBIs.
A team that has a combined six seniors and juniors may have arrived at this point ahead of time, but Collins sees a team that has played beyond its years so far.
“Our youth hasn’t hurt us so far. I don’t think we expected to be this consistent, but we have been remarkably consistent. They are young, age-wise and grade-wise, but they’ve played a lot of softball in their lives. I think we’ve grown up a lot over the course of the season.”
One of the toughest schedules in the state has forced the Lady Red to grow up in a hurry. The Lady Red are 14-6 against teams ranked in the top 20 regardless of class, including 10 wins in a row.
“Playing in tough games has helped,” Collins said. “We’ve seen everyone from [then number one and currently number two in 5A] Lawton MacArthur, all the way down to the top teams in 3A and 4A.”
The 2010 edition of the Lady Red has revived a program that has slid from the ranks of the state’s elite in recent years. Between 1994 and 2006, the Lady Red qualified for the state tournament 10 times, winning in 1996 and 2000, and reaching the finals in 1995, 1998 and 2006. However, the Lady Red have not qualified for state since 2006.
“[The tradition] is not something I’ve talked to the girls about a lot,” Collins said. “A lot of these girls know about it, but they haven’t seen it. They were too young to really see that in person. It’s something we’ll talk about as the playoffs approach. I feel like this group has really restored the tradition and rebuilt its foundation.”
In order to complete the job, the Lady Red will have to get past teams from Collinsville, Bishop Kelley and Tulsa Rogers.
“These teams are good enough to beat you if you let them,” Collins said. “I think if we play to our potential and continue to play the way we have been we have a good shot of getting to the state tournament.”
Editor’s note: All stats quoted do not include Saturday’s games at the Bixby Fesitval.