Over the last two weeks, we chronicled the beginning of the Tiger softball dynasty. The highs and lows the team had already experienced had battle-tested and prepared them for what was to come. Fast forward to March 2018, and the time to put the doubters to rest was now. Coach Gilbert and the Tigers worked tirelessly since the region semi’s loss to South Laurel. The following is how Clay County would respond.

Everyone knew the Tigers would be good, but how good? How about opening their season on a 17-game win streak? Undefeated questions and gossip swirled throughout the school and town, and many wondered if this team would run the table all the way to the state tournament. Clay County wasn’t just winning, they were simply demoralizing teams. Scores such as 11-0 over OBI, 10-0 over Knott Central, 15-0 over Letcher Central just to name a few. The Tigers outscored opponents 125-14 over that span. 

That’s comparable to a biker gang at a church picnic. These Tigers were steamrolling everyone behind the pitching of Brianda Owens and Emma Hurd, while Maddie Frazier, Shelby Phillips, Ellie Finley, Kim Mills, Lauren Smith, Jordan Boley, and Carley Hoskins all played fantastic in all facets of the game. 

17-0 and rolling, the Tigers seemed unstoppable. Then May 8th against Corbin happened. The Tigers lost 5-4 in a contest that came down to the very last at bat. “Humbling,” was the phrase that circulated, along with it being a blessing in disguise. The loss kept the Tigers hungry. Knowing they could be beaten, they worked even harder. 

Clay County would go on to not lose another game for the remainder of the season. Closing out strong with wins over schools such as Perry Central, Middlesboro, and Whitley County. Clay would finish the regular season 25-1, the best in region. The 49th district tournament had arrived, and with it came long-time nemesis North Laurel awaiting the Tigers.

Clay had alleviated the curse of losing to the Jaguars, winning the 49th title the season before. This matchup was no different. After a 22-0 thrashing of OBI in the opening round, the Tigers would go on to defeat North Laurel 6-5 to repeat as district champs, this time on their home field in Manchester. 

It took nine innings to get the job done, but the Tigers were far from satisfied. Their one focus shifted towards winning the 13th region title, as it was the one that seemed most elusive to the illustrious group. “When they play with poise and composure, great things will continue to happen,” said Coach Gilbert. 

The 2018 13th region was held at North Laurel, and the Tigers knew just how sweet it would be to win the title on their field. A 14-4 thrashing of Lynn Camp built the confidence, while an 8-6 win over Corbin avenged their lone loss of the regular season. As fate would have it, the Tigers were set to meet the South Laurel Cardinals in the title game. This allowed Clay County to have the chance to avenge last season’s region loss, giving them a cinematic build up to the championship game.

The game was never in doubt. Clay County would put on a show for a packed house, as they steamrolled the Cardinals 12-2. South held Clay scoreless in the first two innings, followed by a 12-run onslaught over the remainder of the game. The last image was of Coach Jamie Gilbert hoisting the trophy, after years of such hard work and dedication, it had finally come to fruition. 

The dream didn’t stop however, and the smiles soon turned into smirks. This team was headed to Owensboro for the State Tournament, and the only thing on their mind was to win it all, no exceptions. “I think we are as prepared as we can be,” said Coach Gilbert. “After all the hype is over, this team tends to find a comfort zone. They simply have to do the things that got them here.”

Clay County would defeat Pikeville 2-0, followed by a 7-3 victory over Apollo to advance to the Elite Eight. A 6-0 loss to Central Hardin would pit the Tigers back against the wall against an undefeated East Carter team. The cards were most certainly stacked against the Tigers, but that never phased this group. 

In gut wrenching fashion, Clay County would be sent home with a 1-0 loss on a controversial call at the plate. Senior Lauren Smith slid into home in the bottom of the seventh inning, and was unfortunately called out. Video evidence did show that she safely slid in, making the loss even harder to swallow. “It’s definitely a tough way to go out, but it is what it is,” said Gilbert. “We will keep our heads high, because these girls went out and played their hardest. As a coach, I couldn’t ask more of them. I’m extremely proud of what we have accomplished thus far.”

This would be the first of two trips to the state tournament for this group. Graduating seniors Lauren Smith and Carley Hoskins left their mark on the program, as both had been with the majority of the team since it’s very beginning in Little League. This isn’t the end of the story however, as part four comes next week. Stay tuned for the finale!

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