By Torsheta Jackson
Ajah Mills stands on second base shifting her focus from home plate to her third base coach. It is the eighth inning of the MAIS Class 6A fast pitch softball state championship and extra inning rules automatically advanced her to second base. Her teammate Amberly Aultman jogs to the plate and attempts a sacrifice bunt. However, a late throw down the third baseline allows her to make it to first while advancing Mills to third. Altman is thrown out attempting to steal second, but her effort provides the room Mills needs to score, giving Hartfield a one run lead. As the Hawks’ take the field in defense, the spectators take to their feet watching anxiously. Hartfield pitcher A. C. Singletary walks the first batter, placing Parklane runners on first and second. The young pitcher then forces pop outs of the last three batters – catching the final out in her own glove as Hartfield fans erupt into cheers.
When Hartfield hoisted the banner for the state championship on Oct 9, it marked the program’s first ever state title and the realization of Hartfield coach Julie McKinney’s five-year plan. McKinney was recruited to lead the Hawks in 2017 by then athletic director Joe Cole and Jared Myers, who started the program.
“Joe Cole called and asked to talk to me about the program and how to move it in the right direction,” said McKinney. “Jared was a huge part of that, and we just came up with what we wanted to do over the next five years and committed to that.”
McKinney made good on the plan when the Hawks beat Parklane Academy 3-2 in the final game of a best two out of three series that ended the Pioneers hopes for a fourth straight championship.
“We all worked together as a team with our staff to lay the foundation and put the work in progress and in changing the culture and doing things the right way,” McKinney said. “It turned out pretty well for us. We’ve had more wins each season slowly but surely.”
Hartfield jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the first inning. Emma Moore advanced to first after being hit by an errant pitch. Junior Ma’Nia Womack hit a ball deep into the outfield for a double and Hallie Martin followed with a two-run single to center. Parklane answered with two runs in the third to tie the game.
The score remained knotted with Parklane up to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning. With a runner on first, a Pioneer batter hit a line drive to Singletary, which knocked her glove off her hand. She caught both ball and glove in time to throw to first base for the out. The next batter hit a pop-up into center fielder Roo Roberts’ glove for the second out. Avery Smith gave Parklane their third out, catching a pop fly in center field. In extra innings, it was all Hartfield.
For Moore, Aultman, Martin and Ashlyn Willis, the finale was everything they had hoped for and a fitting way for them to leave a program they’ve had a hand in building. Moore, who was selected for the MAIS All-Star team, has committed to Jones College. Martin will play at Holmes Community College next year.
“Those senior leaders came in at the first workout in February and their demeanor, encouragement and leadership with the younger players set a totally different tone for the season. I can’t say enough about them,” McKinney said.
Willis was unable to play in the championship due to health issues. She and Aultman have been with the program since they were seventh graders and have witnessed its growth both on and off the field. They, like many of their teammates, have been coached by McKinney since they were eight or nine years old.
“We have never had a team like this one,” Aultman said. “Winning the state championship my senior year was so special because this was the last time I got to play with a few of my teammates that I have been playing with my whole life. Winning this title made this season a whole lot more special.”
Hartfield is likely to become even more well-known over the next several years. Junior Ma’Nia Womack, the first D1 commit in program history, had 14 homeruns this season. The third baseman, who was named to the All-MAIS preseason fastpitch team, will join the Ole Miss Lady Rebels in 2023. Catcher Mackenzie Kelly, another junior, played 172 innings with only eigth passed balls – a pretty remarkable stat considering that both pitchers are freshmen. Kelly recognizes that it is now their time to step into the leadership role.
“In the upcoming season, the upperclassman will need to lead our team on the field and in the classroom,” Kelly said. “Having just won the first state championship at Hartfield, our expectation is to ultimately repeat as state champions next year.”
“We will not lower our goals and expectations going into the next season,” added Womack. “Our mission is to compete, one game at a time. We will strive to be just as competitive next season.”
Singletary and her mound partner, Raegan Huber have been alternating pitching duties for most of the season. The best friends decided Saturday’s starting pitcher with a coin flip.
“I think they both breathed a sigh of relief and went ‘I’m glad it’s not me.’ But they both know they’ve got each other’s back,” McKinney said. “They know the team is on their shoulders to some degree because they’re the only two we have. They grew up a lot. I can’t say enough about those two girls.”
The Hawks finished the season 26-8-1, setting a number of records along the way including most games won in program history and 22 home runs, most in team history. The state championship is also Hartfield’s first since moving into the MAIS 6A division.
“This year has truly been special,” McKinney said. “I’m very blessed to work alongside the coaching staff that we have and to have the support from our AD David Sykes. This team was certainly special. A lot of things over the years have come to fruition. Of course, all the families over the years who have trusted us to lead the right way and the players that have been a part of the program certainly helped turn the page to you know to a new culture here at Hartfield.”
McKinney said that many around the program described the matchup against Parklane as a David versus Goliath scenario.
“We all know what happened there,” McKinney said. “We definitely think the good Lord had a hand in our season and was with us through the year. At the end of the day what was really important was not in the win-loss column. II Timothy 1:7 says that God teaches us power, love and self-discipline over fear. I think certainly this state championship proves that our team did just that. We finished well and love, self-discipline, and enjoyment for one another is what got us the state championship. There’s just a lot to be said for that.”