ARLINGTON — The first inning of Tuesday's TAPPS Division I softball state championship game hinted that a firefight could very well be in the works between John Paul II and San Antonio Antonian.
The Lady Cardinals were more than up for the challenge, and for good reason.
John Paul needed every last of one its 11 runs on 16 hits on Tuesday to ward off a furious charge by the defending state champion Lady Apaches, who nearly erased a five-run deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning before the Lady Cardinals survived an 11-10 battle from the University of Texas at Arlington's Allan Saxe Field to capture the second state title in program history.
"Just being such a young team, we have one senior on the field for us, and a whole new group back here," said Jayme Baker-Nelson, John Paul head coach. "That last strike was their grit and resilience, and I'm so ecstatic for them."
FINAL: John Paul II 11, San Antonio Antonian 10@JPIIHS_Softball WINS STATE!!! Incredible finish as John Paul holds off a furious rally by Antonian, which trailed 11-6 entering the bottom of the 7th, to capture its 2nd @TAPPSSoftball state title!! WHAT. A. GAME!!! pic.twitter.com/tQftbu0WHu
The Lady Cardinals have showcased quite the flair for the dramatic in their two state championship game appearances, also besting Antonian in the 2021 title bout. John Paul survived a bases-loaded, one-out jam to take that ballgame 4-2 and were thrust right back into the playoff pressure cooker on Tuesday amid a torrent of late-game offense from the Lady Apaches.
John Paul led 11-6 entering the bottom of the seventh, only for Antonian to counter with three straight runs before the Lady Cardinals could record their first out. John Paul aided its cause with a groundout to third base, then tagging out an Antonian base-runner trying to advance home, but the Lady Apaches made it a one-run game at 11-10 moments later after an RBI single from Lindsey Olivarri.
"I just told them, 'Take a deep breath, you've got this. Runners get on base on us and we don't let them score a lot,'" Baker-Nelson said. "I told them to play their game, stay within our game and we can get this done."
A single from Ashton Medina put the tying run on third base for Antonian's fifth hit of the inning, but John Paul sophomore Carly Holman slammed the door shut on the Lady Apache rally moments later with her seventh strikeout of the day.
"It felt like time froze and then all of a sudden gloves were flying and we were running in to give (Holman) a hug," said Marcella Jaques, John Paul senior.
The two teams combined for 21 runs and 30 hits in Tuesday's final. A high-scoring morning in Arlington was evident from the onset with a combined five runs in the first inning, and the lone senior on the Lady Cardinals' roster got things started in fitting fashion.
Jaques belted a double on the game's opening at-bat — the first of eight extra-base hits between the two teams — and found home two batters later off an RBI single by sophomore Abigail Van Volkenburgh for a 1-0 lead. Sophomore Burkley Barnes plated two more runs on a line drive later in the inning before Antonian countered with a two-run frame of its own.
"I think our biggest thing that we focused on was to not decelerate through our swings," Baker-Nelson said. "We're big swingers and we want to continue to pound on hits. We're aggressive, we don't take a lot of walks. We're big hitters."
The Lady Cardinals had seven different hitters log at least two hits in Tuesday's game, including three-hit outings for Holman and Van Volkenburgh, who had three RBIs in the win. Antonian tried to match that firepower with a combined seven hits between Olivarri and Medina, the latter giving the Lady Apaches a 4-3 lead in the second inning.
John Paul struck back with three runs in both the fourth and fifth innings to build a 9-5 advantage—a surge sparked by a solo homer from Jacques in her final high school game. She, along with Holman, Van Volkenburgh and Barnes, were named to the all-tournament team.
"Marcella is fire. She's emotional and such a great player," Baker-Nelson said. "... When Marcella is hitting, everyone knows they can hit and we're getting after it."
Added Jacques: "I can't believe it's real. I'm excited and sad that it's all over."
Jacques has been the catalyst at the top of the John Paul lineup during a 2023 campaign that closes with a 28-10 record, including 13 straight wins to finish off the season. The Lady Cardinals kept their foot on the gas during the postseason with wins over St. Pius X (15-0) and St. Agnes Academy (5-4) to reach Tuesday's title game.
John Paul's second appearance in a state final came with an entirely new roster from its 2021 victory — part of a three-year stretch where the program has posted a 78-17-3 record under Baker-Nelson.
The Lady Cardinals' recent ascent to TAPPS stardom may just be getting started, too. In addition to rostering only one senior in Jaques, John Paul has 13 players who are either freshmen or sophomores.
"When I started this four years ago, I had no idea that we'd be where we're at now," Baker-Nelson said. "One of the biggest things we preach is college development and the wins will happen with that. We want our kids ready for college. This program is headed in the right direction with the goals we set four years ago."
Back on top: Photos from John Paul softball's thrilling state championship win
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