Lovejoy softball

The Lovejoy softball team’s battery of pitcher Jade Owens, left, and catcher Sydney Bardwell, right, is a big reason why the Lady Leopards are in the regional finals for the first time since 2015.

With another round of the UIL baseball and softball playoffs on the horizon, Lovejoy is one of a select few high schools in the state that still has teams in both sports alive and vying for a trip to the state tournament.

The Lady Leopards’ softball team is bound for the regional finals for the first time since 2015, while the high school’s baseball team has matched its deepest playoff run by advancing to the regional semifinals. Both teams continue their respective postseason campaigns on Wednesday in the start of best-of-3 series against Hallsville.

On the baseball diamond, the Leopards are making up for lost time — in 2019, the program strung together a three-round playoff run that ended in the regional quarterfinals. Like the rest of the state, Lovejoy’s 2020 season barely materialized before being shut down by the pandemic.

The Leopards are bound for the fourth round for just the second time in their history, and the first time since 2010, after a two-game sweep of District 10-5A rival Prosper Rock Hill in last week’s regional quarterfinal round. 

Lovejoy leaned on the steady arm of pitcher Brandt Corley to set the tone for the series in a 6-0 victory in Game 1 — the Leopards’ ace tossed five innings of shutout ball and teamed with reliever Dylan Collins to hold Rock Hill to just five hits for the contest. In three postseason starts, Corley has allowed just one run and previously logged complete-game efforts against Frisco Reedy and Hillcrest.

In Game 2, the Leopards rallied despite a 3-2 deficit through four innings. They did so behind three runs scored in the bottom of the fifth, which came off an RBI single from Ralph Rucker and a two-run double by Matthew Mainord to give the team a 5-3 lead. Rock Hill trimmed the gap to 5-4 the following inning off a sacrifice fly, but Collins kept the Blue Hawks in check to earn the save and seal the win.

Trent Rucker went 3-of-3 from the plate in Lovejoy’s Game 2 win.

That same day, the high school’s softball team kept its season alive behind some walk-off heroics to turn away Sulphur Springs in a two-game series. Like the baseball team, the Lady Leopards were emphatic in building a 1-0 series lead behind a 7-0 victory in Game 1 before settling into a much closer ballgame in Game 2 — Lovejoy and Sulphur Springs were tied at just 2-2 through seven innings. Playing into extra frames, the Lady Leopards put the series away in the bottom of the eighth inning thanks to an RBI single from Jade Owens to score Hannah Harvey for the winning run in a 3-2 victory.

It marked the second consecutive series where Lovejoy had advanced in extra-inning, walk-off fashion. The Lady Leopards ousted Frisco Heritage 5-4 in an 11-inning affair on May 14 courtesy of Sydney Bardwell.

Lovejoy continued to thrive in close quarters in the regional semifinals against Sulphur Springs, with Owens playing the role of hero after a dominant series at the plate and in the circle. Just a sophomore, Owens pitched all 15 innings played in the series and struck out 15 batters to go along with her walk-off strike in Game 2.

At the plate, Bardwell strung together three hits in the team’s Game 1 shutout win and Bailey Bradshaw logged four hits total for the series.

That effort was enough to advance the Lady Leopards to the regional finals for the first time since 2015. They’ve got a familiar face waiting in the wings in Hallsville, the same program that denied the Lady Leopards a trip to state back in 2015.

A series win would qualify Lovejoy for the UIL state tournament for just the second time in program history. The Lady Leopards finished as state runner-up in 2013.

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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