OKLAHOMA CITY — In hopeful beginning and bitter end, the Sulphur Bulldogs were fighters through and through.
It was the five innings in between, filled with missed opportunities and uncharacteristic mistakes, that doomed the Lake Country Conference champions and cut short a fine season at the Class 3A state tournament Thursday, as Sulphur fell to Washington 8-6.
It was the first time the Bulldogs (30-10) had ever played in a state softball tournament, and the nerves showed. After jumping out to an early 3-0 lead, started by a two-run single by Hali Gilbert, Sulphur gave it right back in the bottom of the first, as Washington tied the game up 3-3, before tacking on five more runs over the course of the next four innings, with the lead as wide as 8-3 at one point.
Starting pitcher Sierra McCurry, the hero of the Sulphur regional, struggled with control in the contest, walking six batters in the bottom of the first and issuing free passes to 12 Washington batters overall, who got the benefit of several close calls, but displayed great patience at the plate to threw McCurry out of rhythm.
"She's a rhythm pitcher, and they messed with her mojo," Gilbert said. "If it wasn't for her, we aren't here; she got us here."
The team also struggled with defense, committing several untimely errors that helped to prolong innings for Washington, who scored six of eight runs with two outs.
"The girls even told me before the game started that they had never experienced something like this," Gilbert said.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs simply had no answer offensively for Washington starting pitcher Allison Wells. Gilbert's single in the first inning was the only base hit Sulphur could muster until a furious seventh inning rally that brought the Bulldogs to within two runs in the team's final at bat.
Trailing 8-3 and down to the last out of the game, Darian Cravatt, Harlee Griffis and Haley White managed to reach base before Reilly Williams slammed a bases-clearing double to the right-centerfield gap that narrowed the margin to 8-6 before Allie Saunders took a looking strikeout to end the contest.
The common thread? Each of those starters will return for Sulphur next season, meaning that this year's state tournament appearance is not the end of the road for the Bulldogs.
It's only the beginning.
"This is something they'll learn from," Gilbert said. "The ones who are coming back, they know what it takes to get here now, and what it takes to win here."