SPORTS RECAP: Taylor-made – Sapp tosses gem, crashes home run in game 3 to help drive Raiders past Jefferson, back to Columbus

The Courier Herald – October 23, 2021

    Taylor Sapp was back in the circle, and in the zone.
   Her teammates were just as locked in Wednesday afternoon as the West Laurens Raiders blasted their way past Jefferson, 7-1, in the rubber game of their round 2 playoff series to lock up a second-straight berth in the GHSA state tournament.
   Sapp took one out to center field for her first home run of the season, in what would ultimately be her final home at-bat. The two-run shot in the fifth inning broke an already wide-open game even wider in the fifth inning. She put an exclamation point on the storybook ending in the circle, striking out Audrey Burton for the last out of the game in the seventh inning. 
   The senior held Jefferson to four hits and struck out six, allowing only three free passes. The Raiders were also next to perfect in the field, with only one error. 
   "It felt really good," Sapp said, in summing up her memorable final act at the Raider Sports Complex. "I don't take all the credit, though. I give it to my team. They back me up on defense and on offense. These last three-game series, I haven't had my best at-bats, but I give it to my team. It's really them that did it for us."
   West Laurens carried a very buckled-down demeanor into Wednesday's must-win contest, facing elimination after the Dragons notched a split of games 1 and 2 on Tuesday. The Raiders, with Sapp allowing just two hits and four total baserunners as the starting hurler, cruised to a 5-0 shutout win in the first before stumbling to a 6-3 loss in the second, which she started at third. 
   She was back on the same tear in Wednesday's return to the circle, where the confidence and determination seemed to galvanize the rest of the Westside lineup in an equally dominant effort. 
   "She came out and did it again today," said West Laurens head coach Mike Thompson. "That's what big-time players do. And she stepped up as a senior, and said, y'all get on, let's go. And she worked today, now. She had a really good day, and that's what we expect out of a senior." 
   The fifth-inning home run trot was the only moment on the field prior to the final out that Sapp broke from her usual game face. But the dialed-in expression, upon Burton's swing and a miss to end the game, instantly gave way to the same wide smile as she turned in the direction of her dugout and sprinted into the embrace of coaches and teammates. 
   The postgame joy spilled from their extended group hug on the dugout steps into center field, where the team continued its celebration. 
   West Laurens is making its fourth Columbus appearance in five seasons, and has now reached the state tourney five times since 2015. This will be the ninth trip in program history. 
   Clinching at home for a second-straight season, and in a game each of the Raiders' five seniors knew would be their last of fastpitch competition at the Raider Sports Complex, did even more to make the moment a special one. 
   "It feels good," Thompson said. "That's what our girls expect every year, and that's the standard that they've set here. And we expect to do it every year. I don't know that we've ever lost a series on this field. We've lost some games in a series, but I don't know if we've ever lost a series on this field. They came out and protected their home." 
   West Laurens used five hits and four Jefferson errors to pile on for their seven runs. Sapp got two RBIs on her long ball in the fifth, that was the next-to-last score for the Raiders. Alyssa Jones, in the fourth, also went solo on a missile to left that took the Raider lead to 3-0. Despite going down in order in innings 1 and 2, they broke out for two runs in the third, and added at least a single score in every successive frame. 
   After struggling offensively in the late innings of their game 2 loss on Tuesday, the Raiders knew they had to come back with the big hits in the rubber match. 
   "It took a lot of focus," Sapp said. "We knew coming into this game that our defense was strong. We really were more worried about our bats. Some games we come out strong, and some games we don't come out strong. As a whole, we got our focus together, got our heads together, and were like, OK, this is what it takes to get to Columbus. We've gotta hit. That's what it takes." 
   And some opportune defense behind Sapp's shutdown pitching didn't hurt either. 
   The Raiders, at four different spots in the game, cut down lead runners at second with heads-up throws. 
   A nice play by Stephanie Perry at third to get a fielder's choice out on Ellie Kinlaw's slap grounder in the first helped Sapp work around a leadoff hit. She struck out Taylor Spivey swinging before getting a flyout to end the threat, then fanned two more in a 1-2-3 second. 
   Another throw to catch the lead runner at second, this time from Sapp on a comebacker, erased a leadoff walk in the fourth. And the pitcher cleaned up after that with a fly ball and a swinging K to get out of the inning. 
   Maleia Truelove was the only Dragon to safely reach third base (where she was stranded in the third) before the fifth inning, when Jefferson got its only run. Skylar Brady was plunked to lead off, but Sapp bounced back to get a flyout and a groundout before Burton's single to center that served as the RBI. 
   Brady beat the throw to the plate from McKenzie Maddox in center and scored, but Raider catcher Camryn Stokes threw down quickly to nab Burton on a try at second for the third out. The West Laurens lead remained 3-1. 
   Jefferson couldn't find another run, despite hits in both remaining innings. Raider shortstop Hudson Smith went to second on another fielder's choice to catch Kinlaw after a leadoff single in the sixth, which Sapp ended on a swinging strikeout. In the seventh, a West Laurens error and a bunt single allowed the Dragons to get two aboard, but Burton was set down on strikes for the last out, with runners stranded at first and second. 
   Thompson, who said the decision to bring Sapp back to pitch game 3 was a no-brainer after her performance to open the series Tuesday, pointed to her poise and pitch-making as what keyed the Raider victory. 
   "It all starts in that circle," he said. "Taylor, she dominated in game 1, and she came back and dominated right then. When she's on like she was, the other girls kind of fall in line. They've got the confidence that all they have to get her is one or two runs, and she'll be good. And that's what she did. We struggled a little bit early, and she kept us in the game just by mowing them down." 
   Emma Riner reached base in three out of four plate appearances for the West Laurens order, grabbing a single and an RBI in the third inning. Smith also reached safely in all three of her trips up, cracking a pair of singles. 
   West Laurens found the scoreboard against Jefferson's Ravyn Saxon in the bottom of the third after Smith's base hit to lead off. She worked her way around to third on Halley Nobles' sacrifice bunt and a passed ball, and Riner whacked a two-out single to left center to drive her home for the initial run. 
   Maddox followed with a ringing double to the same gap that Riner, thanks to a steal of second amid the at-bat, was able to ride on in for a second run. 
   Jones' laserbeam homer came with two outs in the fourth. The Raiders drew a walk and an error to get two runners on as the inning continued, but a pop-out put a lid on the scoring, and kept the score at 3-0. 
   The fifth, against Spivey as the new pitcher, began with a Jefferson fielding error on Riner's attempted bunt. She moved up on a sacrifice and wild pitch, before Perry drew a walk to put runners at the corners. Spivey got Makayla Register swinging on strikes, but couldn't get the best of Sapp with two down, after allowing another run via wild pitch. 
   She put her best swing on a belt-high pitch, and didn't miss, driving it to the deepest spot in the park just right of the scoreboard in center. Kinlaw gave chase, but needed about a foot longer reach to bring it back as she extended her glove over the top of the chain links. 
   Sapp was hitless in the series until that at-bat, but finished with perhaps the biggest swing of any by the Raiders on the day. 
   "We talked about, before the game, making some adjustments, and we were debating them," Thompson said. "And I hollered down there at her, 'Hey, make some adjustments right here, now,' and she did. She battled. I can't say enough about her right there. She did a good job." 
   The state tournament, after contracting to four teams and sending the state quarterfinals to campus sites last year, returns to an eight-team field for 2021. West Laurens will open the action against defending state runner-up Central, of Carrollton, Thursday at 3 p.m. 
   Defending state champion Heritage, of Ringgold, which eliminated the Raiders in last year's state tournament, joins Madison County, which West Laurens knocked out in the 2020 state quarters, among others in the double-elimination bracket.