October 8, 2019 11:54:52 PM
In the left-field grass, a few feet away from Columbus High School's postgame meeting, C'Asia Grayer stood by herself, slowly pulling off her batting gloves. She squatted down and covered her face with her arms, her back turned to the rest of the team.
The Falcons' senior star didn't quite know what to do with herself now that her final slow-pitch softball season had just come to a bitter end at home against Tupelo. What had been a 14-7 Falcons lead in Tuesday's decisive third game became a 19-14 Golden Wave lead in the span of just two innings.
So when fellow senior LaPorshia Brown grounded out to the pitcher to end a 21-15 loss and with it the Falcons' season, Grayer, who hit three home runs in Tuesday's series, was visibly upset. After the meeting, Columbus coach Eric Thornton took her aside for a moment before sitting with pitcher Delilah Taylor, the final player remaining in the Falcons' huddle.
"They're torn up, but we just talked about the fight that we had," Thornton.
The Falcons dropped the first game 12-3, but they managed to stay in the series against a team they hadn't come close to beating in the past six meetings by holding off a late Tupelo rally for a 15-12 win.
"We could have easily been done right then and not come back in that second game," Thornton said.
But behind a rowdy crowd -- "We even stole a few New Hope fans and brought them over here," Thornton said -- the Falcons didn't give up.
"We scored some runs early and got some things going, and I think the light went off that, 'Hey, we can win this thing,'" Thornton said.
The Falcons never came closer than when they rushed out to a 14-7 lead by the bottom of the fourth inning. A two-run double for M'Kya Smith was the big hit in a six-run third, and Grayer hit what looked like it could be a series-sealing three-run homer in the fourth to put Columbus up 13-7. Grayer pumped her arms and raced around the bases to jump into a crowd of joyous teammates.
"When we get up, that's when we get excited," Taylor said. "We get pumped."
But it didn't take long for the Tupelo team that beat out Columbus for the district title in each of the prior three years to show its might.
In the fifth inning, Kamya Cooperwood drove in a run with a single, and the Falcons intentionally walked dangerous Paris Lehman with the bases loaded rather than watch Lehman hit her third monster home run of the series.
"We've seen her the last couple years, and she can absolutely kill it," Thornton said. "After seeing her put two out and making it look the way she did, we weren't gonna throw to her again."
Sadie Morris doubled in a pair of runs, Nakiya Cayson and Kristen Kidd each singled in one, and the Falcons' lead was cut to 14-13 -- right after Columbus had a chance to end the game via the 10-run mercy rule.
"Give Tupelo credit," Thornton said. "They came back. They started hitting the ball. They did what they had to do. That's a great team."
One inning later, the Golden Wave finished off the comeback and all but put the Falcons away. Morris had a go-ahead single, and India Ivy's two-run double was another key blow in the sixth.
Krishuana Jethrow earned a run back for Columbus with a single in the sixth, but Tupelo added two more in the seventh and final inning, and the Falcons went down quietly.
"We knew they were gonna put up runs," Thornton said. "Our bats went cold right there at the end."
While the season is over for Columbus, Thornton knows his team succeeded in more than enough ways: a district title, a win in the first round of the playoffs and his team receiving its due for a standout performance.
"To see the fan support tonight, to see the attention that's been brought to the school about softball, people talking about it, people showing up and coming out and supporting ... We may not have even had the best record that we've had in the last few years, but we brought more attention to the sport and to our girls," Thornton said. "That's something we're definitely proud of."
And while Tuesday's series had a bitter ending, senior left fielder Aniya Saddler, one of the Falcons' top players, said she'll remember it most from her slow-pitch career. Not the loss, however, but how hard the Falcons played. The fight they showed.
"We fought really, really hard to get where we're at," Saddler said. "But it's OK. We're gonna be good."
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.