HOWE — The upperclassmen on Howe’s softball team have come close before to knowing what it’s like to be on the doorstep of a trip to Austin.
Two years ago, the Lady Bulldogs made it to the Class 3A Region II semifinals, losing two heartbreakingly-close games to Whitewright. Instead of Howe going to state that year, it was their Grayson County neighbors to the east.
“The whole team is built upon that,” senior Madisyn Hargrove said. “We’ve learned from that year, and last year we learned a lot. This year we’ve put everything together and are playing as a team now.”
And here the Lady Bulldogs are, just two wins away from their first softball trip to state.
Howe (23-8) will take on Hughes Springs in a best-of-three Region II final series starting tonight with Game 1 at 6 p.m. and ending Saturday night with Games 2 and 3 if necessary at 7:30 p.m., all at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
The winner advances to the University Interscholastic League 3A state semifinals next Wednesday afternoon at the University of Texas’ Red & Charline McCombs Field.
The Lady Bulldogs reached the region quarterfinals last year, losing to Peaster in a one-game playoff. But the relatively early exit — Howe has gone at least three rounds deep three years in a row — only whetted their appetite for more success.
“We just all weren’t there, the team wasn’t,” said Hargrove, who will go on to play for North Central Texas College. “We showed heart through all of it, but this year we’ve shown a lot more progress and ability to play.”
What Howe has lacked in championship experience has been compensated for by head coach Jeff Martin and assistant coach Jordan Dusek.
Martin has a winning pedigree, having coached Archer City to state championships in softball in 2001 and in girls’ basketball in 2004. Dusek won one state softball title and played in another title game as a player at Weimar.
“We’ve both been in those situations,” Martin said.
Martin is Howe’s fourth head softball coach in as many years. But no matter who is at the helm, the Lady Bulldogs have been successful each year that their six seniors have been in the program.
“Honestly it’s a team thing,” Hargrove said. “We all have talent and are athletes, and I think we’ve come together as a team to build the program and build the success that we’ve had over the years. It’s the team bonding.”
Senior Kayla Anderson said Martin stresses fundamentals much more than the coaches who came before him.
“He is really excited and believes in us,” said Anderson, who has signed with Harding University (Ark.) “He respects us and is definitely a good addition to our program.”
Ever since a wake-up call in bi-district against S&S, the Lady Bulldogs have been dominant in the postseason.
In that meeting — originally slated as a series but reduced to a one-gamer because of the weather — Howe trailed after four innings before taking the lead for good with two runs in the fifth and added two more in the seventh for a 5-2 victory.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” Anderson said. “Honestly we underestimated them a little bit. They don’t get enough credit and they’re definitely better than everybody gives them credit for. We were scared at the beginning, but we were able to pull it out in the end.”
The Lady Bulldogs put that lesson to good use by crushing Sunnyvale in the area round, 16-0 and 13-3, both in five innings. They then swept Pottsboro, 7-1 and 7-3, to match the program’s deepest advance.
Getting to the semifinals wasn’t easy. Howe had to break a tie in the bottom of the sixth to secure a 7-6 Game 1 win against Hooks with Torrey Stubblefield in the circle, then was forced to play a rubber game after Hooks took the second game in a 12-10 slugfest.
But after Hargrove suffered the loss in Game 2, Martin gave her the ball again, and Hargrove bounced back with a three-hitter in the deciding game, which Howe won 7-1.
“She did a great job,” Martin said. “Really everybody did after that Game 2, because it was crazy. We were up, they got the lead, and we almost caught up in the end. It was easy to say they were going to throw in the towel, but they didn’t. It was a great example of guts and believing in the grind and the process.”
Next up is Hughes Springs, which also got stretched to three games last weekend. The Lady Mustangs (32-3) dropped Game 2 to Lone Oak after a narrow win in the series opener, but claimed a 5-1 victory in Game 3 to advance.
The loss in Game 2 snapped a 13-game winning streak for Hughes Springs, which split with Hooks in district play and swept Redwater, a team that beat Howe in a tournament early in the year.
“Everybody at this level, if you’re still playing, you’re good,” Martin said. “They really put the ball in play. They’re really good hitters and they have two really good pitchers. They can all slap and lay the ball down and they can hit for power. You really have to pay attention and be on your toes.”
The Lady Bulldogs, though, appear not to be daunted by being on the cusp of a berth in the state tournament — and making more program history.
“It feels awesome,” Hargrove said. “Especially since this is the seniors’ last go-around. I think we’re about to make the best of it.”