MADISON — Two years ago, the Madison County softball team returned to Central Virginia with a hero’s welcome after capturing the program’s first state championship in more than two decades.
The Mountaineers are two wins away from a similar celebration.
Madison faces Region D champion Lebanon in the VHSL Class 2 state semifinals on Thursday at 9 a.m. at Radford University.
Ten members of the 2017 state championship team are still prominent contributors for Madison County, including six players that started in a 4-0 victory over Richlands in the state title game.
Junior outfielder Morgan Clark was a freshman on the 2017 team and has fond memories of the entire experience.
“The team in 2017 was so motivated to win and to complete our five goals — district champions, conference champions, regional champions, state champions and to beat [William Monroe],” Clark said. “Everyone was so close and we created tons of memories. Some of my favorite memories from that year would be singing and dancing on the bus to away games and riding back in Madison with a police and fire escort once we had won the state championship.”
Logyn Estes struck out seven batters and threw a three-hit shutout for Madison County in the championship game as a sophomore. The East Carolina signee joins Emily Seale, Sophie Adams, Cassie Smith, Emillee Daniel and Hannah Johnson as members of the 2017 team that finished with a 26-1 record and won a state title.
“To be successful, you just have to have an attitude that sets you apart from the other great teams,” Estes said. “When we won in 2017, we were all young and hungry for success. The bond that we had to win in 2017 had grown so much stronger. Each of us cares about the success of our teammates and we love each other like sisters, and I think that that’s what makes us so special.”
The Mountaineers’ quest for back-to-back state titles fell short last spring as Madison County dropped a 3-2 decision at King William in the state quarterfinals.
“We knew going to states again after winning would be hard,” Daniel said. “You’re the team to beat after that and it did crush us not to make it [back]. But we used what we had learned and it seems to have made us a better team together this spring.”
Senior infielder Kaylan Boone said the loss definitely served as motivation.
“It showed us that we were in fact beatable and that is a great lesson for a team that didn’t lose very often,” Boone said. “It lit a fire under our butts that motivated us to never want to go through that feeling again.”
It also helped the players emerge as leaders.
“The whole team knew we couldn’t let that loss affect our mindset,” Seale said. “We have used that to motivate us to work harder at practice to set ourselves apart from other teams. We have put in countless hours for the state tournament and that includes coming to practice, even if the coaches could not be there.”
The tactic has served the Mountaineers well.
Madison opened the season with eight straight victories before Class 3 state semifinalist Turner Ashby handed the Mountaineers their lone regular season loss.
“I knew that our team had the ability to be special this season from Day 1 of practice,” junior outfielder Sophia Adams said. “The potential our team has is obvious. We just have to execute.”
Madison County (23-2) bounced back and won 14 in a row, including a come-from-behind 3-2 victory against Buffalo Gap in the regional semifinals. The Mountaineers rallied twice in the game and won on Bailey Smith’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to secure a third straight state tournament appearance.
Seale said that game served as one of the turning points in the season.
“I knew from the beginning we could make it [to states] just from how we performed last year,” she said. “But if I had to choose a game that really showed our heart and motivation, then it would be the game against Buffalo Gap because we truly showed our heart and motivation.”
Another sign of a championship team is its ability to overcome adversity. The Mountaineers dealt with their fair share. Junior infielder Hannah Johnson, one of the team’s top hitters, tore her ACL during basketball season and has not played all spring. Seale and Estes battled nagging injuries throughout the season, but the team hasn’t missed a beat.
“This season, like the previous seasons, we have great ball players,” junior Cassie Smith said. “Everyone on the team has something special about them that makes them unique. Having versatile players has helped us due to the injuries we’ve faced this year.”
Adams said the team’s camaraderie also is special.
“All of us on the team are pretty close with one another and I would say that added to our success,” she said. “We’ve been playing with one another for so long, we just have great chemistry. We also have pushed through injuries and adversities together to make us stronger.”
Another key to the team’s success is familiarity. Most of them have played with or against one another since Tee-ball and have a firm understanding of what makes them tick.
“Our team’s makeup hasn’t changed very much in the last two years,” Johnson said. “We’ve lost five players in total, so the bulk of the team is still here. That gives us a tremendous advantage as far as teamwork goes. The team chemistry is remarkable because we have been together and had the same experiences for those three years.”
The Mountaineers rebounded from a loss to Page County in the regional final with an impressive 11-0 victory at Amelia to earn another trip to the state semifinals at Radford University.
“We grow as a team every game and it feels so special to be going to the state tournament,” Daniel said. “I think the team has really come through during regionals and those are the games I realized we were going to make it to states. The Page [County] game did upset us, but it honestly was what we needed heading into states. It showed us that we can lose and what we need to do to win.”
Coach Jesse Yowell’s team understands it will face another stern test Thursday as they take on a Lebanon team that boasts a nine-game winning streak.
“To get back to the state semifinals is a very big deal and it feels amazing to be back in such a great place with such a great team,” said senior outfielder Emily Price. “The chance that we have to play at this level and be in the semifinals is incredible and it would be an honor to take home a state championship trophy again for the second time.”
The Mountaineers take on Lebanon on Thursday at 9 a.m. in the Class 2 state semifinals. The winner will face either Page County or Richlands in Friday’s title game at noon.
“I know it means the world to my teammates to make it back to Radford and play for a state championship,” Estes said. “But for me, I couldn’t be more grateful that I have the chance to throw again in my high school career because of the hard work that my teammates put in. I can’t thank God enough for giving us this platform to play on.”