February 12, 2018 10:46:02 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
The significance of Sunday's games wasn't lost on Bailee Watts. The Bishopville, South Carolina, native didn't know a lot about the history of the Mississippi University for Women's athletic department when she arrived in Columbus, but she still felt the pressure when The W re-booted the softball program for its first game in 15 years.
"I was scared. I was nervous," Watts said. "I don't know why I was nervous, but I was nervous."
Watts wasn't alone in that feeling in program's return to the field, as The W committed four errors and had only four hits in a 12-1 loss to Millsaps in five innings at Don Usher Field.
But all of those feelings changed after The W bounced back with a 7-2 victory in the nightcap.
"The second game was everything I hoped for," The W coach Tatjana Matthews said. "We're going to forget about that first game. ... I'd like to say we made enough errors in that game for the entire season."
Former Caledonia High School standout Cara Hopper, who went on to play at Itawamba Community College in Fulton and at Blue Mountain College, also felt the jitters before the first games, but she knew they would pass. She responded by scattering nine hits in a complete-game effort. She allowed two runs (one earned) and four walks.
"It was tough, but I knew the defense was going to come out for the second game and it was going to be a completely new tune," Hopper said. "I knew they would have my back, and they definitely did, several times."
Working with a four-run lead in the fifth inning, Millsaps had two on with one out. Second baseman Heidi Matthews chased down a popup in foul territory to record the second out. A walk loaded the bases and brought the tying run to the plate, but Hopper forced a popup to Matthews.
In the sixth, Hopper left three runners stranded with a popup to Watts at shortstop.
"We call her our super senior -- she's our only senior -- and with runners on, she battled," Matthews said. "I am over the moon happy with the way Cara Hopper threw today."
The W gave Hopper plenty of run support. Trailing 2-0 in the third, right fielder Anna Lloyd reached on an infield single and Heidi Matthews reached on an error. First baseman Kristen Martin then drove in The W's first run. She stole second base and scored on third baseman Kendall Wilkinson two-run single.
"I just got it in my head, 'You have to do it. You're a junior. This is your job,' " Wilkinson said.
Watts' two-run triple to right field two batters later gave the Owls a three-run lead. The pandemonium that ensued in the dugout with Watts standing on third base was the release the Owls needed.
"Before the at-bat, coach looked at me and told me, 'I believe in you.' I think anybody could've done it. It just happened to be me," Watts said. "All of us came into this, first game in 15 years, really nervous. For that to happen, for us to take that lead, proves to us that we can do it. We belong here. I know it relaxed me."
Said Matthews, "It takes a special team to come out after getting a lick like they did, and not only did they come out, they came ready to go. They put bat to the ball. They came together as a team and helped each other out when they were down. They played their game. They finally stopped playing scared. Once they played their game that we've been doing since August when we got here preparing for it with morning workouts, weights, mental days, they stopped playing scared and swung the bat."
Matthews expects to see more of the same from the Owls. She said the current players picked up for the former ones 15 years ago who didn't get to play anymore after a tornado damaged the school's athletic gymnasium and led to The W's decision to disband intercollegiate athletics.
Hopper, who is from neighboring Steens, said the players will soak in the meaning of the games before moving on.
"It means a lot. A lot of the local people came to watch tonight and I wanted to show out for our community," Hopper said. "I wanted to do well, and it motivated me."
Matthews hopes the victory motivates the players and encourages them to learn from their mistakes and to get better every day.
"As we learn from our mistakes, we're going to do great things," she said. "Success is measured different. Yeah, it's measured in wins and losses, but it's measured in other things. It's measured when your kids get confident, and we were successful in multiple ways in that second game.
"We had some jitters, but you expect that to happen in your first home game in 15 years. We had a lot more people than we expected in bad weather. I could not be a prouder coach."
Lloyd was The W's only player with two hits in the second game. Katlyn Duke added a triple.
In the first game, Duke, a former standout at Neshoba Central High, had a single and an RBI. Wilkinson, Martin, and Watts also had hits.
The W will play at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Concordia College (Ala).
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson