The Randolph Southern softball team wears its emotions on the sleeve Thursday night in Dublin while being presented with the Class A state runners-up trophy. (Carroll C. Gambrell/Special to The Herald)
DUBLIN -- Tough, gutsy and unyielding to the end.
That's the way Randolph Southern's softball team ended its season Thursday in Dublin in the GISA Class A state final.
This magical, surreal season finally ended on a windy day at the Southern Pines Complex in the most bitter of losses to a team from Thomas Jefferson that would have never been playing for the state title if not for a bizarre rule by the GISA that allowed Thomas Jefferson to advance to the state championship series after Randolph Southern had beaten TJ, 8-0, in the Final Four just last week.
Thomas Jefferson came back to win the best-of-three state title series by taking the final two games Thursday, beating the Lady Patriots, 6-4, in Game 2, and 8-2 in Game 3.
The Lady Patriots (19-6) bashed Thomas Jefferson in the opening game, 9-4, and led, 4-3, in the fifth inning of Game 2, before seeing their season end.
"Under the old format we would have taken it,'' said Randolph Southern coach Rand Ragan, whose team won its first region title last year. "They changed the format last year, and it didn't work in our favor.''
The new format created a double-elimination tournament in the Final Four, so instead of the winners of two games advancing to the state final, Thomas Jefferson -- after losing to Randolph Southern -- was allowed to win its way back in by beating two other losers in the loser's bracket.
Ragan said he wouldn't second guess the way things turned out.
"It was a tough loss,'' he said. "We should have won it. I'm real proud of the girls. Our season was made when we reached the Final Four. We had never done that before.
Ragan then added: "I'm not disappointed in the girls. We're OK."
They have a lot to look forward to at Randolph Southern, which had only one senior on this year's team.
"I think we will come back next year and be hungry,'' said Rand's daughter, Madison Ragan, a sophomore. "I'm only thinking positive. I'm thinking how I better myself for next year.
"I'm really proud of our season. I'm not going to think about what happened until later. I'll probably be up all night thinking about it later this week, but not now. I'm just really proud of our season. Sometimes things just don't work out.''
The idea of Madison Ragan coming back even better next year is scary.
She is arguably the best player in GISA Class A right now, and maybe in all of GISA. She went the distance in the first two games Thursday, and then pitched 3 2/3 innings of relief in the Game 3, entering the game with Randolph Southern trailing, 5-0, and the bases loaded in the fourth.
"She got a little tired in the second game,'' Rand Ragan said. "But after resting, she was kind of refreshed in the third game and seemed to get stronger. I had thought about having her pitch in the first game, and then starting her in the third game. Hindsight is 20-20.''
Madison Ragan was amazing. She struck out 18 batters in the first two games, and fanned six more in relief in the third game. She gave up one earned run all day (16 2/3 innings) and Thomas Jefferson did not retire her at the plate until her final at-bat of the season.
She reached base four times and drove in two runs the first game with a pair of singles, and two walks. She went 4-for-4 in the second game, and drove in a run in the first inning to give the Lady Patriots the lead, and then belted a towering home run in the fifth to give Randolph Southern its last lead of the season, 4-3. She had three more hits in the third game.
When she struck out in the seventh inning of Game 3, it was the first time she struck out all season.
Her performance was gutsy and inspiring.
"I was tired,'' she admitted. "But in a game like this in this type of atmosphere, tired doesn't exist. You just have to suck it up and keep playing. In the back of my mind I was frustrated, but it made me more aggressive.''
The ace of the staff had help. Gabi Jackson had keys hits and drove in four runs on five hits while playing stellar at first base, and Alana McCook slapped her way on base all day and made a bevy of plays at second base, including making a leaping grab of a liner to take away a hit in Game 2.
Catcher Brittany Holbrook, the only senior, had four hits, drove in two runs and threw a runner out trying to steal second, and Braylie Blanton started the day with two hits, an RBI and scored twice in the opener. Beth Clark, Elizabeth Lumpkin, Dana McCarter and freshman Madison Langford all hits and each drove in a run during the series.
"There were some tears afterward,'' Rand Ragan said. "Some of the girls were breaking up. It was a tough loss, but we had such a great season. I think this will generate some excitement for softball at Randolph Southern.
"It may take a while for the dust to clear. But they should understand what a special thing happened this year. I think once it soaks in everyone can appreciate what kind of season we had.''
His daughter can't wait until next year.
"I think in our first practice next year we'll be pumped. This team is not going to give in after the season we had. I know we will be hungry next year. I think next year we will go all out in every game we play," Madison said. "I think now we realize that we are actually a really good team. I don't think we realized how good we are.''