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Van Uses Late-Season Win Over Mineola As Springboard Through the Playoffs

Van, led by (from left) Autumn McKinney, Hallee Carter and Sierra Nichols, face district rival Mineola this weekend with a spot in the Class 3A state softball tournament. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

VAN — If there was one moment most responsible for the Van Lady Vandals’ run through the playoffs, it may have occurred after perhaps their darkest moment of the season and at the hands of this week’s playoff opponent.

An 11-0 loss to preseason District 15-3A favorite Mineola back in March was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It hurt every one of us,” said Van coach Craig Ham. “Like I said after the game, ‘this one game isn’t going to define our season. We still control our destiny.’ Wednesday (the next day) wasn’t good, but by Thursday they were back. And we’ve just been taking it one game at a time and they never quit. If anything, that probably brought us closer together.”

Van (29-5-1) hasn’t lost since, eventually defeating Mineola the second time around to help corral the district championship.

“It was 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh and they had bases loaded and one out,” Ham said of his team’s second meeting with Mineola. “And we get out of it. That’s just a testament to these girls; they weren’t going to lose.”

Ask any one of the Van players, and they’ll say that 1-0 win at Mineola has become a defining moment in their season. And it has the Lady Vandals two wins short of their first state tournament berth since 2006.

“It gave us a lot (of confidence),” said pitcher/first baseman Sierra Nichols, who authored the 1-0 shutout. “We were able to see how working together as a team will put you ahead. Being able to pick each other up when you mess up will help the whole team pull through together.”

Van has rolled through the playoffs, sweeping all three of its series. And big reason why has been its pitching combination of Nichols and Autumn McKinney. The two are a combined 25-3 with a 1.75 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 176 1/3 innings.

“We’ve got two aces — Sierra Nichols and Autumn McKinney,” Ham said. “They’re really different, one’s a righty and one’s a lefty and they’ve got a different approach, but we believe in both of them. We play well behind them. They’ve done a great job in the playoffs, and that’s probably one of the keys for us — having two pitchers. (Opponents) see one, one day and the next day it’s completely different. For us, we’ve seen the same thing both days. I think it has worked to our advantage to have (two pitchers).”

Van’s lineup has been a force as well, hitting well over .300 as a team while averaging 6.6 runs per game.

“We haven’t depended on one person, it’s been someone different each time,” Ham said. “It’s good that we’re not dependent on one person, you’ve got to work your way through our whole lineup. I really believe that anybody in our lineup is capable of coming through with a big hit.”

And now everything has come full circle. Instead of Mineola standing in the way of a district title, the Lady Jackets are the only thing between Van and a trip to Austin.

“It’s really intense because we’ve got so much history with them, and it’ll be a really good game,” said outfielder Hallee Carter. “There will be a lot of people that come out … it makes us pumped up to know that.”

Van Lady Vandals

  • Head Coach: Craig Ham
  • Record: 29-5-1

 

How they got here
  • Bi-District: bye (15-3A champion)
  • Area: def. Pleasant Grove 2-0 in series (W 10-6, W 4-0)
  • Regional quarterfinals: def. Gladewater 2-0 in series (W 4-3, W 1-0)
  • Regional semifinals: def. Sanger 2-0 in series (W 5-1, W 5-4)

 

Probable stating position players
  • C — Jasmin Gipson (.343, 1 HR, 32 RBI, 7 2B)
  • 1B — Sierra Nichols (.360, 7 HR, 35 RBI)
  • 1B — Kylee Moore (.319, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 7 2B)
  • 2B — Brittany Goode (.247, 1 HR, 13 RBI)
  • 3B — Jordain Castillo
  • SS — Ashlin Lovett (.319, 9 RBI)
  • LF — Hallee Carter (.441, 1 HR, 31 RBI, 12 2B, 7 3B)
  • CF — Chelsey Trejo (.373, 15 RBI)
  • RF — Autumn McKinney (.385, 1 HR, 27 RBI, 7 2B)
  • RF — Haleigh Moore
  • DP — Caitlann Peden

 

Probable starting pitchers
  • RHP Sierra Nichols (13-0, 1.98 ERA, 57 K, 85 IP)
  • LHP Autumn McKinney (12-3, 1.53 ERA, 117 K, 91.1 IP)

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