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Jackson, Lady Bobcats ready for another shot in Huntsville

Leeah Jackson doesn’t mind talking, but the end of her high school softball career is one topic she’d just as soon not discuss.

“I can’t even think about it,” said Jackson, a senior shortstop at Phil Campbell. “It’s really sad. I’m so close to all the girls on the team. I don’t wanna leave them. We’re just like a family.”

With that in mind, Jackson intends to do everything she can to keep that final curtain from dropping on the Lady Bobcats, who are scheduled to open play in the Class 2A North Regional Tournament on Thursday at noon with a game against Hatton.

After qualifying for the regional last year for the first time in a decade, Phil Campbell (23-12) found its way back to Huntsville with a runner-up finish at last week’s Area 14 tournament. Jackson, a Snead State signee, is hopeful that last year’s experience on the big stage has left the Lady Bobcats a little more seasoned and a lot more prepared to play for a berth in Montgomery.

“It was just crazy. We’d never been there before, and we really didn’t know what to expect,” said Jackson, who went 4-for-8 with two walks, two RBIs and two runs scored in three games at the regional last May. “But I think we grew as a team, just getting to stay together and be together as much as we were. We learned a lot last year. The competition was so much harder, and we learned more about each other.

“We definitely wanted to go back this year. We were hoping we could work harder and maybe go even further than we did last year.”

Jackson has certainly done her part, putting together another fantastic season at the plate. She heads into the regional batting .511 on the year with 20 walks and a stellar .622 on-base percentage. Of her team-leading 47 hits, an astounding 30 have gone for extra bases—eight home runs (tying her career-high from last season), four triples and 18 doubles.

“This year has probably been one of my best years, hitting-wise,” said Jackson, who also leads the Lady Bobcats with 39 RBIs, 38 runs scored and 34 stolen bases in 34 tries. “My batting average is higher than normal, and I’ve hit more home runs than I ever have in my life this year. I think I’ve become a better player, and I’m more confident in myself.”

A confident Jackson presents a major threat to opposing pitchers, who often proceed with extreme caution. Of her 20 walks this season, at least a handful have been intentional, issued by pitchers who don’t wish to see Jackson add to her career home run total [it currently stands at 20] at their expense.

Despite those impressive power numbers, Jackson said she doesn’t step into the batter’s box thinking home run.

“I’m going up there looking for a base hit,” she said, “and it just kind of happens.”

Jackson anchors an improved Phil Campbell lineup that she says is more productive than any she’s been a part of. The Lady Bobcats are batting .319 as a team with 80 extra-base hits, and they average a healthy 6.5 runs per game.

“We have hit the ball a lot better this year than we have in the past,” Jackson said. “We’ve scored more runs than we ever have. We’ve just focused on hitting the ball up the middle. We’ve focused more on hitting than we ever have in the past, and we’ve worked more on technique and fundamentals and stuff when it comes to hitting.”

All that work has clearly paid dividends, as Jackson is far from the only Lady Bobcat enjoying a big season at the plate. Freshman Katie Thomas has hit anywhere from leadoff to the cleanup spot, batting .371 with 10 doubles, 20 RBIs, 24 runs scored and a .431 OBP. She has drawn 14 walks while striking out only four times all year.

Junior Abby Davis is a .330 hitter with four triples, four doubles, 15 RBIs, 29 runs scored and 14 stolen bases. Sophomore slugger Cypress Quinn came on strong down the stretch and finished the regular season batting .408 with two home runs and 12 RBIs in just 49 at bats. Kallie Allen, another sophomore, is batting .333 with seven doubles, 15 RBIs, 25 runs scored and 16 stolen bases.

Senior Darby Elliott, who prior to this season hadn’t played softball since the seventh grade, has been a valuable small-ball weapon for head coach Doug Jackson, batting .311 with 15 stolen bases and a team-leading 12 sacrifice bunts. Fellow senior Olivia Knight bats .306 with nine steals and eight sacrifices, and eighth-grader Kenner Scott has contributed 25 hits, 25 runs and a .368 OBP. Senior Chloe Roberson has two home runs (including an inside-the-park-job) among her six extra-base hits.

The Lady Bobcats got a lift recently when pitcher Emma Ergle returned from a leg injury that caused her to miss a large chunk of the season. Sophomore Emily Swinney (11-4 on the year in a team-high 89.1 innings pitched) filled in admirably, but Ergle provides more of a strikeout option in the circle. Only an eighth-grader, Ergle is 9-3 on the year with a 2.64 ERA and a strikeout/walk ratio of 50/14 in 53 innings.

“Emma is a great pitcher,” Jackson said of Ergle, who struck out seven batters in a complete game to beat Red Bay 4-1 last week and nail down Phil Campbell’s regional berth. “She works on pitching all the time. Even when her leg was broken, she still found a way to keep practicing her pitching. She’s very strong on the rubber. She’s a very good pitcher, especially for just being in the eighth grade.”

At the other end of age spectrum are Jackson and her fellow seniors, Elliott, Roberson, Knight and Karley Ergle, all of whom will play their final game in a Phil Campbell uniform at some point in the near future.

Just not too near. Not if Jackson has anything to say about it.

“I’d like to win, hopefully,” she said of her goals for this week in Huntsville. “And not let my senior year be over. I’d like to see all the girls on the team work hard and grow and become better players. We just need to focus on the game, not on the surroundings and everything else going on. Just focus on one play at a time, one pitch at a time, and not worry about anything else other than doing whatever we have to do to win.”

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