COLUMBIA, S.C. — At sunrise, Hartsville softball coach Jamie Horton prepared her team Tuesday for what was at stake.
At sunset, the Red Foxes hoisted the program’s second Class 3A state championship trophy after beating Union County 3-1 in the deciding game of their title series at Irmo High School.
The first was won in 2012. And after losing in 2014 and ’15 against that same Union County program, frustration and uncertainty began to mount for Hartsville.
Horton, a first-year coach after serving as an assistant the previous seven, had talks with the team Tuesday morning, afternoon and even on the bus ride to Columbia. But star pitcher Cayla Drotar, a South Carolina signee, also helped out. After the Red Foxes lost 6-3 Monday, players also needed words from one of their peers.
And after one player from each team was suspended for Tuesday’s game because of a Monday postgame incident, it was time for Hartsville to look ahead.
“I wanted to re-focus them, and Cayla was a big part of that, being the leader on this team,” Horton said.
Drotar, six years the Red Foxes’ ace, had experienced a state championship before as an eighth-grader.
But in her first year as coach, Horton was dealing with something totally different: High expectations from a spirited fan base.
With great expectations come great pressure, though, especially after Hartsville lost one starter from last year’s state runner-up team.
Therefore, Horton needed Drotar. But Drotar also needed Horton.
“I knew she was under a lot,” Drotar said. “When I first met coach Horton my seventh-grade year, I thought she didn’t like me. But I wouldn’t give anything for her. She’s my backbone, and I wouldn’t give anything for her.”
Drotar sure did her part Tuesday, going the distance while striking out eight and blasting a home run to left.
“It was perfectly amazing,” Drotar said while wearing her state-championship medal.
Drotar struck out six during the first four innings.
“Drotar’s been solid,” Union coach Tommy Petty said. “She’s been solid every year. The first state championship they won, she was on the mound. … She’s going to be very successful at Carolina. That’s the kind of ball player you look at and say ‘That’s a great ball player.’”
Although Drotar was clutch at the plate in Saturday’s first game of the series when she hit two homers, Tuesday’s early offense belonged to sophomore first baseman Taylor Watford. Watford hit an RBI double to right in the first, and another RBI hit to center in the third to make it 2-0.
This was done against another highly-touted pitcher, freshman and South Carolina commit Bailey Bettenbaugh, who contained Hartsville’s offense from the time she entered the second inning in Saturday’s Game 1.
After Hartsville scored three runs in the sixth inning of Monday’s loss, Watford made sure early the momentum was on the Red Foxes’ side.
“I‘ve been hitting for two years now, and I was just getting used to it,” Watford said. “It just felt great, it was awesome. I was just in the zone. Everything was going right.”
Then, in the fifth, Drotar crushed a Bettenbaugh pitch over the left-field fence, and she continually pumped her fist in celebration while rounding the bases to make it 3-0.
It was as valuable to Hartsville as it was cathartic to Drotar.
“We all knew it was coming,” Horton said. “She had a few at-bats that didn’t go her way Monday. It was bound to happen, and I’m glad it happened today.”
In the top of the seventh, Union was able to start a rally. But, it did not last long.
Drotar walked Bettenbaugh, and Abbie Valentine singled a short time later. After Bettenbaugh scored on a sacrifice fly by Cara Phillips, Drotar beaned Brianna Fowler, and there were all of the sudden runners at first and second but with two outs.
Drotar closed it out by inducing a Jazmyne Boyd groundout back to herself. Then she threw to none other than Watford at first for the title-clinching out.
The two set up the victory. Then they closed it out.
But at the end, every Hartsville player and coach huddled with that championship trophy they had been chasing since 2012.
“It’s extremely special,” said Horton, whose team ends the year at 32-3. “We knew we had the ability to get back. It was just a long season of us working together and jelling together, getting the chemistry perfect and it started working that way and came together during the playoffs. And what better time to come together and start working the best they’ve worked all year than now?”
UC 000 000 1 — 1 4 0
H 101 010 x — 3 5 0
WP — Cayla Drotar (7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 8 K). LP — Bailey Bettenbaugh (6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 2 K).
LEADING HITTERS – UC: Ashley Vinson 1-3, 2B; Cara Phillips 0-3, RBI. H: Drotar 2-3, HR, RBI; Taylor Watford 2-3, 2B, 2 RBI.
RECORDS: UC 32-4; H 32-3.