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Darton softball, first-year coach Neel win region title

Darton State beats ABAC in Region XVII championship game

The Darton softball team’s 19th straight victory on Saturday gave the Lady Cavs the Region XVII championship and sent them to the NJCAA national tournament. (Special Photo)

The Darton softball team’s 19th straight victory on Saturday gave the Lady Cavs the Region XVII championship and sent them to the NJCAA national tournament. (Special Photo)

LOCUST GROVE — Darton softball coach Eric Neel gathered his team after winning Saturday’s Region XVII championship and reminded them of a cold, February day nearly three months ago.

The Feb. 6 matchup against Middle Georgia was Neel’s first game as a college coach, and it was a 10-2 Darton loss — the Lady Cavs’ worst game of the season against a region opponent.

Neel never forgot the sting.

“It could have gone south from there, and that’s what we talked about (Saturday),” he said. “But I think the true toughness of the kids showed up, and they took us places that people doubted we could get to.”

On Saturday, they took Neel to a state championship and punched their tickets to the NJCAA national tournament next month.

The No. 1 seed and 13th-ranked Lady Cavs (45-10) put the finishing touches on their region title with a 7-5 victory against ABAC, stretching their season-high winning streak to 19 games. It was the program’s first championship since 2011 and their fourth in the last decade.

Neel, however, was just as excited about the winning streak the Lady Cavs will be taking to St. George, Utah, for the national tournament as he was about the state title.

“Our pitching has been outstanding during those 19 games, and we can hit with anybody in the country,” said Neel, who took over the program in January after spending the last seven seasons coaching high school softball in Mississippi. “I don’t see why we can’t make a run at a national title.”

Darton’s No. 1 seed was never in doubt as it closed the regular season with one doubleheader sweep after another, and the Lady Cavs’ run through the region tournament was equally impressive, outscoring opponents 22-9 in three victories.

Saturday’s game against ABAC got tight late in the seventh inning when Brittany Davis hit a two-out, two-run triple to pull the Fillies to within 7-4. Jaye Hilliard then hit an RBI double to cut Darton’s lead to two, but Lady Cavs pitcher Sommar Wright struck out the next batter to secure the championship.

Wright, who was the winning pitcher in Darton’s first two tournament games, entered the game in the seventh inning with two on and no outs, relieving starter Tiffany Bishop, who allowed five hits in six innings.

After falling behind 2-0 early, the Lady Cavs took the lead in the bottom of the fourth inning on a two-run double from Nicole McInerney. Jordan Allen, Jostlyn Higgerson and Emily Church knocked in runs in the fifth and sixth inning to stretch Darton’s lead to 7-2 entering the seventh inning.

“I am very, very proud of these kids, and I am looking forward to see what we can do at nationals,” said Neel, who added that he believes his team should receive a favorable seed. “These kids are resilient. They never get rattled and can fight through adversity.”