Mineral Wells Index
By CLINT FOSTER
Their journey may have been cut short about 115 miles north of Austin with a 5-2 loss to second-ranked Liberty Hill, but its hard to imagine a much more brilliant season than the one the Mineral Wells Lady Rams put together on the softball diamond in 2014.
With the best record in school history at 28-10, the Lady Rams followed a second-place District 6-3A finish with a second-straight area championship to tie their deepest playoff run ever and cement their place as arguably the single greatest team in Mineral Wells softball history.
From the moment their season began, they defied reason. Led by head coach David Tarver in the final season of an illustrious 18-year career, many scoffed at the Lady Rams' assertions that they could repeat their success from 2013.
Sure, the Lady Rams boasted playmakers such as senior and Weatherford College pledge Bethany Allen at shortstop – who was a monster in both halves of the frame – and a wildly talented, albeit young, pitching staff. But on paper, many felt the Lady Rams didn't pose much of a threat and had more to prove than they had reason to be feared.
People wanted proof and every time the Lady Rams took the field in 2014, they showed what they were capable of.
"A lot of people wrote us off this year and these girls came out here and proved them wrong," Tarver said. "They came out and showed what they were truly made of. The biggest thing they showed is what a team can do."
The Lady Rams' team chemistry was truly remarkable and proved to be one of their biggest weapons, particularly in tough games. They always picked each other up, and as a result, players emerged and created some of the most memorable moments in Mineral Wells atheletic history.
Sophomore Kelsey Keeton and junior Allie Stephens formed a pitching duo that was virtually un-hittable at times. Keeton's style of pounding the strike zone and Stephens' deception complemented each other so well – to the tune of a combined 231 strikeouts – that Tarver frequently used both as a change of pace in games that resulted in many wins.
Players like Addison Singleton and Anaiz Mendoza proved themselves to be versatile pieces that could contribute at multiple positions and do so well. And Victoria Huffman and Tabby Santibanez turned out to not only be solid defensive outfielders, but very real threats at the plate, particularly late in the season.
But perhaps no player wowed quite like junior slugger Hope Patterson. When her older sister, Reagan, graduated after the 2013 season, it left a hole at catcher for which the Lady Rams had no clear answer as a replacement.
But Patterson not only took over the role of catcher, she owned it, proving to be a fantastic defensive leader and a devastating offensive force in the three-hole with a team-high eight home runs.
She delivered the marquee performance that will forever be remembered as the highlight of an already remarkable season.
In game three of a best-of-three series against District 7-3A champion Glen Rose in the second round of the playoffs on a hot afternoon, Patterson stepped up to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning of a 2-2 ball game.
With Allen representing the go-ahead run at third base, all the Lady Rams needed was a base hit to secure back-to-back area championships. But Patterson crushed the first pitch she saw and sent her eighth homer of the season high over the left-field wall for a walkoff victory in dramatic fashion.
"Hope had a good year," Tarver said. "She was consistent all year long with timely hits and seemed to always come up with a big hit when we needed it, a la the Glen Rose series. I told her that walkoff home run she hit will be one of my memories for life."
The Lady Rams spectacular season earned them nine All-District 6-3A selections, including Patterson as the Offensive Player of the Year, Allen as the Defensive Player of the Year and third baseman Ashley Valdez as Newcomer of the Year.
The Lady Rams bid farewell not only to Tarver, but to two seniors from their greatest team in history: an extremely hard worker and great dugout presence in Mendoza and Allen, whom Tarver called the best he's ever coached.
"Bethany is, for many coaches, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "She's just a tremendous athlete, knows the game so well and plays so hard that you're lucky as a coach to get one like her."
But despite three key losses, the Lady Rams have plenty of reason for continued optimism even without an announcement for their new coach as of yet.
The Lady Rams return seven starters, each an all-district selection and five of whom will be seniors next year. It's the perfect storm of experience, talent and team chemistry that could easily combine to form yet another year to remember.
"They have seven returning starters and a JV that works hard," Tarver said. "[They'll have] lots of experience returning and lots of other hungry to be a part of it. They should have a great season next year because of it.
"[The 2014 team] lost significant production and turned right around and had a great year. That speaks a lot to this group playing as a team. When two individuals left, two more stepped up and they won as a team. They are very capable of doing that next year, as well."
Regardless of what happens in 2015, this year's Lady Rams team has a firm legacy that will last forever. For Tarver, it couldn't have been a better year to end on.
"In 18 years, this has been the top of the list for me," he said. "They won the most games, they advanced the farthest and I could not have had a more enjoyable season because of how they played the game and how much they enjoyed each other and came together. Having a year like this with a group of kids like this, that's what coaches dream of. I'm very fortunate to have been a part of it."
Indeed, the entire Mineral Wells community is fortunate to have been a part of it. Against all odds, the Lady Rams earned their place among the elite. And the memory of their historic season will surely be treasured for years to come.