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Against all odds, Benton back atop softball world

May 29, 2014

Senior pitcher Stevi Muilenburg releases a pitch during a game earlier this season. Benton won the 6A State Championship last Friday, beating Sheridan 4-2.

It’s not over until it’s over. That could be the new motto for the 2014 Benton Lady Panthers. Down to their last strike and an unlikely hero at the plate in the 6A State Championship game, the Lady Panthers had their lives changed forever.

It took just one swing to rejuvenate a packed house Friday at Bogle Park in Fayetteville. Staring at a full count with two on and down 1, freshman slugger Breanna Langford deposited possibly the biggest hit in school history over the fence in left field.

Having hit the ball so hard, Langford made a pit stop at second thinking it was a go-ahead double before continuing her trot to home plate. While the monstrous blast would be enough to make one’s career, Langford still had to pitch the bottom of the seventh inning. With nerves of steel and not a worry in the world, the composed underclassman strolled to the pitching circle and walked away a state champion and 6A MVP five batters and three outs later.

It was one of the most impressive, amazing, unbelievable and greatest things I have ever witnessed and one that may never be seen again. The underdog prevailed against all odds. Benton softball was once again a state champion.

The story could not have been written any better. Nothing compares to the run the Lady Panthers made in 2014. Picked to finish near the middle of the pack come state tournament time, Benton proved everyone wrong. Sure, a 12-2 7A/6A South record is impressive, but not nearly as momentous as the feats Benton completed come postseason time.

Not only did the Lady Panthers beat conference rival Sheridan in the title game, they took down possibly the best pitcher in the state in Andrea Kindrick to advance to Championship Weekend. Having lost to the Alabama commit 2-1 in each of the past two seasons, Benton turned the tide on Kindrick and her Russellville Cyclones and returned the favor, winning the 6A semifinal by a 2-1 score.

The Lady Panthers never listened to the naysayers. They knew the talent they possessed was enough to make some noise. They used the nonsense as more fuel to a very hot fire. Everything clicked at the right time. Defense was near perfect. Pitching was almost unhittable and the bats and timely hits continued to pour in.

Not to mention the amount of senior leadership that was lost after last season. Having to rework the lineup and field arrangements, Head Coach Heidi Cox had her hands full to start the year. But, like her team, never yielded one bit.

The freshmen and sophomores stepped up huge with Taylor Ogelsby filling ginormous shoes at shortstop, Hannah Ward taking over in centerfield and Herbie Herbner securing the hot corner spot at third and hitting leadoff. It wasn’t until near the midway point of the season that Cox and her staff put the same defensive alignment on the field for back-to-back games.

The competitive nature and unselfish play of the entire Benton team is why the 6A State Championship hardware came home with the club. The Lady Panthers came together as a team with one goal. One reason for playing – to win a state title.

It was the third time that the current seniors had played at Bogle Park. Losers in the previous two (2011, 2013,) Benton looked to be all but finished Friday. But that wasn’t the case. Not on that day. Not this time around. The top spot in 6A belonged to Benton. A year after heartache of losing in the title game and losing a teammate, the Lady Panthers shocked everyone. They were finally high school softball royalty once again. While six Lady Panthers from this club will never wear a Benton jersey again, they will forever be known as state champions.

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