The energy, compassion and emotion on display during Wednesday’s matchup between Tarleton State and TWU at Pioneer Field had many players, coaches and spectators near or in tears.
TWU retired the No. 19 jersey of Abby Burns, who died Monday after her battle with acute myeloid leukemia, and honored her with a performance that transcended the simplicities of softball.
Several of Burns’ family members, friends and teammates paid their respects before the game, with Burns’ close friends Jordan Readicker and Lizzy Kelly holding her jersey in the pitching circle while former assistant coach Kristin Smith threw out the first pitch to TWU graduate assistant coach Tiffany Weise.
With the Pioneers wearing orange T-shirts as jerseys that read “Abby’s Angels” across the front and the memory of Burns driving their spirit, they pulled off an emotional comeback when Readicker’s two-run, walk-off home run gave TWU a 4-3 victory in eight innings.
“There was never a dull moment throughout the whole game,” Readicker said while holding back tears. “We heard cheers in the stands for Abby, and every pitch was for her. This team has such fight in them that I knew that no matter what the result was that we were going to be strong for Abby, because she needs us to.”
The TexAnns, who honored Burns with orange ribbons in their hair, rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game in the sixth inning and looked to have scored the winning run in the eighth, but the Pioneers were not done.
In the bottom of the eighth, Kelly led off with a single to give Readicker the opportunity for the heartfelt home run.
“Before the last pitch was even thrown, I looked up and told Abby that this whole game and the rest of our season was for her,” Readicker said. “She obviously shined through, and I knew as soon as it was off the bat that it was something good. Even if it wasn’t a home run, I knew it’s what we needed to get started.”
When Readicker crossed the plate to a jubilant crowd of Pioneers, emotions were running high as she began to sob and hugged each of her teammates and coaches.
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better,” TWU head coach Richie Bruister said. “What I told her when we hugged after she scored was that was Abby’s way of saying thank you for everything that she [Readicker] and her mom have done. It was God’s will tonight to do that, plain and simple.”
Lone Star Conference pitcher of the week Brandie Lander showed resilience in earning her 19th victory of the year, pitching a complete game while allowing three runs and six hits with four strikeouts on 123 pitches.
“It starts with pitching, because it’s what wins ballgames,” Bruister said. “She pitched her heart out there for eight solid innings. The defense made the plays behind her to keep the game close. If we are only down one run, then we are fine. Our offense knows we can score some runs.”
The heart of the Pioneers’ order did all the damage. Three through five hitters Katie Hines, Readicker and Kendra Sancet drove in all four runs.
“If you like signs ... the heart of the order was what it was all about tonight,” Bruister said. “It’s about our slogan [One Heart, One Beat, One Team] that we live by this year and the heart the fans and supporters have shown the entire time. It was an awesome experience for everybody.”
The Pioneers (41-11, 19-5 Lone Star) tagged Tarleton State starter Brenna Hennan with two runs just minutes into the game, giving Lander breathing room for the majority of the contest.
Hines singled to right field to drive in Bailey Vrazel, who reached on an infield hit. After Readicker struck out, Sancet sent an RBI single to left to give TWU a 2-0 advantage.
Lander continued to keep the TexAnns quiet until Tarleton’s McKaylee Pittman reached third base on an error when center fielder Amanda Ruiz and right fielder Haley Colwell collided while tracking the well-hit ball. Courtney Vroman drove Pittman home on a single through the left side of the infield to draw the TexAnns to within 2-1.
Tarleton State tied it at 2 in the next inning with leadoff hitter Melody Mayse’s third home run of the season.
The Pioneers nearly ended the game in walk-off fashion in the seventh when Sarah Wittenburg singled and Vrazel walked on four pitches. However, Ruiz lined out to shortstop Arianna Rodriguez to end the inning.
Escaping danger in the seventh, the TexAnns applied pressure in the eighth with Kelsey Latta’s infield hit giving Vroman enough time to beat Vrazel’s throw home to put the TexAnns (23-22, 11-13) in front 3-2.
The No. 8 Pioneers next will face No. 5 West Texas A&M, with whom they are tied atop the conference, at Pioneer Field at 6 p.m. Friday. The series — which will determine the conference champion and tournament seedings — will end with a doubleheader starting at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“We know going in that WT is a great team,” Readicker said. “We are going head-on for first place in conference.
“Since I’ve been here, all four years, we’ve said we need a conference win and a conference ring to leave a legacy behind. What better way to do it than in my senior year.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873.
TWU 4, TARLETON STATE 3
WP — Brandie Lander (19-5). LP — Brenna Hennan (11-7). 3B — TS: McKaylee Pittman. HR — TS: Melody Mayse. T: Jordan Readicker.