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All in the family: Close-knit Russellville girls set sights on Montgomery

When Alivia Clemmons says the Russellville softball team is like a family, she’s not exaggerating. The Lady Golden Tigers are indeed a close-knit bunch.

“This is the closest team I’ve ever been a part of, chemistry-wise,” said Clemmons, a sophomore outfielder. “We really are like family.”

It still came as a surprise, though, when Clemmons and her teammates spotted head coach Kathryn Montgomery—just two days removed from the birth of her second child—outside their dugout at last Thursday’s area tournament opener against Lawrence County. Ian Jameson Montgomery was born May 1, 2018 to Kathryn and her husband Micah. Let the record show that Russellville’s newest and youngest fan attended his first softball game on May 3.

“I think she got out of the hospital and came straight to the game,” Clemmons said of Montgomery, now in her second season at RHS after being hired away from Shoals Christian in 2016. “We absolutely love her. She’s such a strong woman. I mean, she just had a kid, like, three days ago, and she’s at the game. We were surprised to see her.”

If this were a fairy tale, Montgomery’s unexpected appearance would have inspired a rousing performance by the Lady Golden Tigers. [A walk-off win would have made young Ian’s first game a memorable one, even though he wouldn’t have remembered it.] Unfortunately, reality has a way of interfering with a good story. Russellville fell behind Lawrence County 9-2 and got beat 12-6, dropping into the loser’s bracket.

When they left the field at East Limestone High School last Thursday night, the Lady Golden Tigers—who had swept Lawrence County during the regular season for the first time in who knows how long—were closer to elimination than they were to securing a third straight regional berth.

“That first game, we were a little too headstrong,” Clemmons said. “We thought we had it. After we lost, it gave us the motivation we needed. We knew what we had to do to get the job done. We had to lay it all on the line.”

Russellville arrived at the ballpark on Friday afternoon needing to win two elimination games to reach the area finals and wrap up a regional bid. With Montgomery in attendance again and assistant coaches Gayla Mills, Tommy Bruton and Lauren Taylor running the show from the dugout, the Lady Golden Tigers cruised by Brooks 11-1, earning a date with top-seeded East Limestone in the loser’s bracket final. The winner would be headed to Huntsville. The loser would be headed home.

Leading 1-0 in the bottom of the third, Russellville—which had mustered only five runs total off East Limestone pitcher Olivia Crouch in two area losses during the regular season—got back-to-back home runs from sophomores Autumn Logan and A.J. Taylor, opening up a 4-0 advantage.

“That was big,” said Clemmons, who was on board for Logan’s two-run shot off Crouch. “It gave us confidence that we could hit her. And we did. She throws a good rise ball. We tried to pick up on her pattern, lay off the rise ball and just hit it where it was pitched.”

Seventh-grader Jenna Whitfield added an RBI single in the bottom of the fifth, driving in Taylor and stretching the lead to 5-0. East Limestone finally got something going against Russellville pitcher Megan Warhurst in the top of the sixth, scoring three runs on four hits to get back in the game, but the Lady Golden Tigers answered in the bottom half with a four-run rally highlighted by Taylor’s two-run double to left.

Warhurst, a junior lefty, pitched around an inconsequential solo homer in the top of the seventh, retiring Crouch on a groundball to second to finish off a 9-4 win. Russellville lost an extra-inning affair with Lawrence County in the area finals, but the Lady Golden Tigers (21-18-2) had done what they needed to do to get back to Huntsville. They’ll face Scottsboro on Thursday morning at 9 a.m. in the North Regional Tournament, with an eye toward finishing in the top two and advancing to Montgomery for the second time in three years.

“I absolutely think we’re capable of going to state,” Clemmons said. “If we come out and play good defense and hit the ball like we can, we can definitely make it.”

The Lady Golden Tigers can certainly hit. They’ll head to Huntsville batting .348 on the season as a team and averaging 7.0 runs per game, with 33 homers. The first six batters in the lineup (senior second baseman Sydney Burcham, sophomore pitcher Krista Sikes, Clemmons, Logan, Taylor and junior shortstop Karlie Moore) have each gone deep at least four times, with Clemmons the most unlikely slugger of them all.

Only 5’5 and slight of build, the pint-sized Clemmons looks as though she might have to run around in a downpour just to get wet. She has the appearance of a slap-hitter, but she carries a big stick. After hitting her first career home run as a freshman last year, Clemmons has popped six homers this season—tied with Burcham for the most on the team.

“I’m really just trying to put the ball in play,” said Clemmons, a .408 hitter who leads the team in hits (49), doubles (nine) and runs scored (45) while ranking second behind Logan with 43 RBIs. “My goal when I come to the plate is, ‘I’m not gonna let her get me out.’”

That sheer determination matters far more than Clemmons’ small stature, which is made even more noteworthy by the fact that her younger sister Chalea (a seventh-grader who hit her first varsity home run earlier this season) is already 5’10.

“My mom’s side of the family is tall,” Alivia explained.

So, the question begs asking: Where does all that power come from?

“My work ethic is the key. I work as hard as I can, and my dad has been a big part of that,” said Clemmons, whose father Jeremy is an assistant principal at RHS. “We work on hitting all the time, and the workout program we have as a team has made a big difference, too.”

Clemmons has plenty of company in the heavy hitter department. Burcham has been a force in the leadoff spot, leading the team with a .460 average, a .588 on-base percentage and 14 multi-hit games. She has three times as many walks (24) as strikeouts (eight) and is tied with Clemmons for the team lead in homers (six) and runs scored (45).

Sikes has settled into the No. 2 spot in between Burcham and Clemmons, batting .410 on the year with four home runs, 31 RBIs and 32 runs scored. Logan has five homers, nine doubles and a team-best 44 RBIs to go along with a .361 average in the cleanup spot.

Taylor is batting .405 with five home runs, seven doubles, 30 RBIs, 38 runs scored and a team-leading 23 stolen bases. Moore also has five homers to go along with a .363 average, 28 RBIs and 29 runs scored.

While sophomore Madison Murray recovers from a torn ACL, Jenna Whitfield has stepped into the starting catcher’s role and made an immediate impact, batting .359 with 12 RBIs in 44 plate appearances at the varsity level. Sophomore first baseman Makala O’Neal (.260 average with four doubles, 13 RBIs and 16 runs scored) and junior outfielder Lauren Rogers (.352 OBP with 18 walks, 25 runs scored and 12 stolen bases) round out a deep lineup that can do damage one through nine.

Warhurst (4-5 with a 3.83 ERA), Sikes (9-9 with a team-high 88 strikeouts in 99.2 innings) and senior Emma Whitfield (7-4, 3.35 ERA) take care of things in the circle. Sikes and Whitfield combined on a two-hitter in the win over Brooks last week, and Warhurst went the distance in the regional-clinching game against East Limestone, allowing just two earned runs in seven innings.

Clemmons and her teammates couldn’t have been happier to see Warhurst come through with the season on the line.

“We love Megan,” Clemmons said. “She works so hard, and she does a great job of leading our team when she’s pitching.”

With five sophomores (not counting Murray) in the starting lineup and a middle school program fresh off a 34-4 season already starting to bear fruit at the varsity level, the future of Russellville softball looks incredibly bright. But for seniors Burcham, Emma Whitfield and Jasmine Galloway, there’s no time like the present. For them, this week in Huntsville brings one final opportunity to get back to Montgomery and play for a state championship.

“Our seniors have experienced Montgomery before,” Clemmons said, “but we’d love to help them get back down there and go even further, especially with this being their last year. That would be great.”

As for Montgomery, she plans to be in attendance on Thursday morning when Russellville gets rolling against Scottsboro at the Metro Kiwanis Sportsplex. She went out of her way on Sunday to thank her assistant coaches for helping guide the team back to Huntsville.

“They’ve been clutch,” Montgomery said. “Gayla and Tommy have been varsity assistants all year. Gayla is an elementary teacher at WES who handles a lot of the paperwork and logistics. Tommy is a volunteer who selflessly devotes himself to our program in any way we need him. Lauren, a jayvee assistant, has stepped in to offer more help since I’ve been absent the last week. Without being asked, she demonstrated a servant’s heart and commitment to our program when we needed a little help filling all of the roles.

“Our team is truly a team, from the girls to the staff to the adults. That’s what it takes to have success.”

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