WIMBERLEY — Florence head softball coach Brett Gola has said repeatedly that the No. 25-ranked Lady Buffaloes know they have a chance against anyone when Emily Jo Gray is in the circle, and Friday was an example of why.
The senior threw a complete-game two-hitter, surrendering just one unearned run while walking three and striking out 17, and Florence topped Karnes City 3-1 in the bi-district round of the Class 3A playoffs.
“She just does a heck of a job every time out,” Gola said. “You just kind of sit back in awe sometimes with that kid, because she gets out there and flat-out gets after it. It’s just fun to watch her compete, and when she’s on and throwing it, we feel like we can always count on her to give us a chance even when our offense is sputtering like it was tonight.”
Gray was called for a few illegal pitches throughout the game, but she kept her composure and kept attacking Lady Badgers hitters, and her comfort level with her catcher, Hollie Ellis, certainly helped.
“Even though I was getting illegal pitches called on me, I just tried to go out there, shake it off and just focus on me and my catcher,” Gray said. “Me and Hollie, we have a connection together. We know what to throw, she knows what to call and I just wanted to hit my spots.
“I just wanted to win this ballgame so bad, and we did. We pulled through.”
Gray rarely shook off the pitches Ellis was calling.
“She definitely gets me and she definitely knows what to call,” Gray said. “She’s been playing softball just as much as I have, pretty much. Even though she’s a freshman, she always knows what to call on the batters and I just throw it right there.
“If I don’t feel good about a pitch, I’ll shake her off and she immediately knows what to call next.”
Karnes City (16-9-1) scored the game’s first run in the top of the first.
Serenity Alaniz reached on a one-out error and advanced to second base on the same play. After Gray recorded a strikeout for the second out, Molly Miller blooped a single to center field to score Alaniz to put the Lady Badgers up 1-0.
The score remained the same until the bottom of the third, when Florence (14-7- 1) scored two runs to snag a 2-1 lead.
Bri Ramirez drew a one-out walk before Madison Hill lined a hard single to left. The ball was misplayed in the outfield, and Ramirez was able to score to tie the contest at 1-1.
Lexi Solis then reached on a two-base error and Hill advanced to third on the play. Hill attempted to score on a wild pitch, but the ball caromed off the backstop right back to the catcher and Karnes City was able to get Hill at at the plate to save a run.
On the very next pitch, however, another wild pitch allowed Solis to scamper home to put the Lady Buffaloes up by one.
The Lady Badgers were able to get runners to second and third in the top of the fourth with two outs, but Gray registered a strikeout to end the threat.
In the the bottom of the sixth, Ellis doubled down the right field line and was lifted for courtesy runner Payton Aldrich. Aldrich reached third on a wild pitch and, with two outs, Unique Rodriguez reached on an infield single to plate Aldrich and give Florence some breathing room.
Rodriguez’s hit was in-between the circle and first, but she hustled down the line and slid into first safely on a bang-bang play.
“I wasn’t thinking much,” Rodriguez said. “I just knew I needed to do what was best for the team. I knew I needed to get on base, and I didn’t want to let them down.
“It was a close game, and I knew I had to get on. I just wanted to contribute any way I could.”
The insurance run allowed Gray to take a deep breath. She walked the leadoff hitter in the top of the seventh, but recorded two strikeouts and a popout to end the game.
“It really helped me,” Gray said of the run in the sixth. “It gave me some confidence and a cushion. I wasn’t worried about the runner at first. I was just focusing on the glove and nothing else.”
While it wasn’t pretty, the win was all that mattered to Gola.
“Are we playing our best ball right now? Probably not,” he said. “But we’re doing enough to survive and advance. That is kind of the theme of the playoff run, right now.
“The kids are a little frustrated, but we did what we needed to do.”