AUSTIN -- It had to at least tie for the most bittersweet high school graduation of all-time.

Four Van seniors were thrust into graduation ceremonies Saturday right at home plate of Red and Charline McCombs Field after losing to La Grange, 7-3, with the Class 3A Championship on the line.

There were a lot of tears and hugs, some smiles cracked and overwhelming support for the Lady Vandals in the stands of the full stadium.

Van's players had missed the school's ceremonies while preparing for the season's final game some 225 miles down the road.

"It was a really unforgettable experience," Lady Vandals' senior third baseman and pitcher Nicole Gandy said. "I wouldn't trade that for the world. Ever since I was a little girl, I've seen girls go down to Austin and graduate here. I wanted to do that. And I got to do it."

Van third baseman Nicole Gandy fulfilled her dream of 'walking the plate' in Austin despite the championship game loss. (©Travis Harsch, ETSN.fm)

The East Texas team struggled to find answers against La Grange. The Leopards were considered a fairly large favorite entering the game with ace pitcher Marissa Zoch and Texas softball signee Alyssa Angel on the roster.

Zoch entered the game 29-0 and no-hit Van through 3 1/3 innings.

La Grange (40-2) had built up a 5-0 lead by then. The scoring started when Kristy Bertsch hit a long drive to center field with runners at third base and second base.

Van's Hallee Carter appeared to have a play on it, but the ball sailed about six inches over the extended fielder. She was injured on the play, could not field the ball and the lucky break became a three-run inside-the-park home run.

Two more La Grange runs crossed the plate in the third inning and a sixth score was knocked home in the fourth inning.

The Leopards led 6-0 beyond the midway mark of the game.

Senior pitcher Autumn McKinney got the start for the Lady Vandals. She finished her year with a 16-4 record. (©Travis Harsch, ETSN.fm)

It would have been easy to declare the final innings of this championship game the official beginning of summer vacation. Instead, the Lady Vandals (31-6-1) pulled themselves together and moved into position to make a comeback.

Haleigh Moore drew a leadoff walk in the top of the fifth and stole second base prior to being driven to third base on Sierra Nichols' hit with one out. That was Van's second hit of the game.

Jordain Castillo knocked Moore in with a hit and Hallee Carter cleared the bases with a 2 RBIs double.

I thought we had a chance," head coach Craig Ham said. "These girls aren't going to quit and I always thought we had a chance."

The score was 6-3 in favor of La Grange and momentum had shifted Van's way for the very first time.

It didn't last long.

La Grange's Hatti Moore connected for a home run that went beyond the 220-feet mark in deep center field.

Van only managed two more hits and the state title escaped its grasp.

"I just told them 'thank you,'" Ham said. "It's been a great season. We've got some great kids, and I told them they're more than just kids. We were more than just players. We were a team. That doesn't always come. I just thanked them for being a true team. I'm proud of them. I'm just so proud to be associated with those girls."

Gandy, Moore, Ashlin Lovett and Autumn McKinney were handed their graduation gowns and walked toward the rest of their lives.

"You couldn't ask for more," Ham said, his voice about to break. "It was just an exciting experience. This is something they'll never forget and I know I'll never forget. Professionally, this is the highlight of my career. You can coach forever and never have this opportunity. I'm so thankful."

Van players console each other after a 7-3 loss to La Grange in the Class 3A state title game Saturday in Austin. (©Travis Harsch, ETSN.fm)

 La Grange 7, Van 3

Class 3A State Championship Game

At The University of Texas' Red and Charline McCombs Field, Austin

Van                      000    030    0    --    3    6    1
La Grange             302    110    X    --    7   9    1

Pitchers and catchers
  • Van: Autumn McKinney and Haleigh Moore.
  • La Grange: Marissa Zoch and Hatti Moore.

 

WP -- Zoch.
LP -- McKinney.

Doubles
  • Van: Hallee Carter.
  • La Grange: Blake-Ann Fritsch.
Triples
  • La Grange: Riley Fisbeck.

 

Home Runs
  • La Grange: Kristy Bertsch (3 RBIs, inside-the-park), Moore (1 RBI, center field).