— By CLINT FOSTER
The regular season is in the rearview mirror and, as head coach David Tarver expected, the Mineral Wells Lady Rams will play a best-of-three series with the Graham Lady Blues to start the Class 3A, Region 1 and 3 softball playoffs.
The first game is set for 8 p.m. today at Kessler Field. The Lady Rams will then travel to Graham, Friday, for game two at 5 p.m. and, if necessary, game three immediately afterward.
It's a familiar position for the Lady Rams, who played the role of underdogs against the Lady Blues in last year's bi-district playoff series and won the final two games of the three-game series to survive and advance.
This year, the tables have turned.
After a 24-7 season with a second-place finish and 8-2 record in District 6-3A, it's the Lady Rams who are the favorites heading into this year’s matchup.
As if the Lady Rams weren't already familiar enough with Graham – having played the Lady Blues seven times in the previous two season – Mineral Wells had marked success against this year's Graham squad, earning wins in both meetings by scores of 12-0 and 10-0.
"We're very familiar with Graham and have lots to draw from," Tarver said. "In the 18 years I've been here, we've played them between 30 and 40 times. Our focus is on being sharp and making the routine plays. I believe as long as we make those routine plays with no major blemishes, we're the better team and will come out on top."
Tarver said practice has gone well for the Lady Rams in preparation for the series. They have benefitted from a lighter load and some extra time to sleep and recharge for the postseason stretch.
"We've been practicing since the middle of January," Tarver said. "It's been a long year. So, when the playoffs get here, we cut down on the amount of time that we spend working. Basically, we focus on ourselves right now."
Tarver named junior Allie Stephens as his probable starting pitcher for game one with sophomore Kelsey Keeton then slated to pitch game two. However, as he has done multiple times this season, Tarver said he is not adverse to switching pitchers for a change of pace mid-game, adding that they will both be available at any moment.
Unlike their previous nine meetings, this Graham series will be marred by tragedy.
Graham's senior second baseman Candice Martin was killed in a car accident April 16, and the shockwaves have been felt throughout the community.
Tarver said one of the Mineral Wells mothers has organized a condolence package on behalf of the Lady Rams softball team in honor of Martin, who by all accounts was not only a beloved member of Graham High School, but the entire town.
As difficult as it can be to inject sports into such a situation, there is little doubt that the Lady Rams can expect Graham's absolute best-possible performance when they take the diamond for the first time since the loss of their teammate.
"It's going to be an emotional time for them and they’re going to play with a lot of emotion and a lot of desire," Tarver said. "We've got to be on top of our game. We're definitely sympathetic of their position, but we've got to stay focused, because they're going to be ready to play.
"Unfortunately, in my career here, we've dealt with tragedy with a teammate. It's a tough emotional time. We've had that talk about how life is full of tragedy and loss, but as Christians, we understand that beyond our world, there's a better life.
"We're prepared from Graham to do a memorial of some kind. We're going to respect them and honor them. They're definitely going to be playing hard for a lost friend. We've got to be ready for that and play softball for our town and our school."
*Due to print deadlines, a story following Thursday's softball game between Mineral Wells and Graham will be available exclusively online at www.mineralwellsindex.com. Pick up your copy of Sunday's Index for a complete recap of the Lady Rams' first round playoff series. Also look out for Clint's column in Friday's paper detailing the Lady Rams' chances of reaching the state tournament.