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Mark Edwards | The Anniston Star | April 7, 2018

In aftermath of tornado, Gamecocks keep surviving and thriving

JACKSONVILLE – Jacksonville State's softball team did Friday what it's done so often in recent years – sweep two games from an Ohio Valley Conference opponent.

For the Gamecocks, however, beating Belmont 9-1 and 4-3 carried more meaning that a couple of ordinary softball victories.

After an EF-3 tornado ripped through Jacksonville State and the surrounding community March 19, nothing has been ordinary for the school or its softball team. The location of Friday's games served as a reminder, as Oxford's Choccolocco Park served as the host. Sports information director Josh Underwood, who does public address for JSU softball, announced the Gamecocks' appreciation twice to Oxford for use of the field.

"We're glad that people can use our games as a chance to get away," said JSU senior Emily Woodruff, who blasted a huge two-run homer in the second game. "It's good to win for something other than ourselves. We want to win, but we're playing for a bigger purpose that just us."

The Gamecocks (19-17, 7-1 OVC), now in second place in the league, gave their fans a taste of two types of victories. The opening victory ended after five innings because of the eight-run mercy rule. Alexus Jimmerson ended it in the bottom of the fifth when she beat out an infield single to drive home the finishing run.

In the second game, JSU gutted out a one-run victory, with plenty of big moments.

"Young people are resilient," JSU coach Jana McGinnis said. "Our players have had to deal with so much, but when they've stepped inside the lines, they've been about business."

Few might sum that up better than pItcher Kirsten Titus, who hadn't been called to appear in an OVC game this season. She and Woodruff roomed together at Gamecock Village, and their apartment was wrecked by the tornado.

Titus got the call in the seventh inning with a runner on first, no outs and JSU up 4-3. She retired Belmont without a run in the biggest performance in her college career. She allowed no hits and one walk. The first batter she faced, clean-up hitter Lexi Rouse, lined out weakly to shortstop.

As staff ace Faith Sims faltered late, JSU pitching coach Mark Wisener told Titus to get ready. The Gamecocks already had used freshman Nicole Rodriguez and Jimmerson, and Titus was the only arm left.

"He told me – and these were his exact words – 'Go get warmed up and be ready to come in hot like a missile,'" Titus said with a smile.

This isn't the first time Titus has rescued JSU. Last year in a win against Murray State, Titus worked 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief to settle the Gamecocks' defense.

"It means so much because everybody has had everybody else's backs," Titus said. "My teammates have had my back, and I wanted to have their backs, too."

Three to know

–Taylor Beshears, the team's top hitter, had only one hit Friday, but it was a big one. In the bottom of the fifth with the score tied 3-3, Beshears homered to right center. Also, she played two errorless games at shortstop. After making 14 errors in the first 26 games at shortstop -- a new position for her after catching in junior college -- the junior has had only one in the last 10 games.

"She's getting more and more comfortable at shortstop," JSU coach Jana McGinnis said. "It's good to see."

–Senior right fielder Leila Chambers made two stellar plays in the field. In the opener, she latched onto a liner that appeared headed over her head. In the second game, Belmont's Baylee Cook sliced a single down the line, but Chambers came up with the ball and threw out Taylor Hargrove, who was trying to go from first to third. Cook tried to advance to second, but JSU third baseman Caitlyn Sapp threw to Beshears, who tagged out Cook.

"I always tell our players that if you're not hitting, then help the team defensively," McGinnis said. "Leila has done that. Against Murray State, she was struggling at the plate, but defensively, she threw out a runner at home, and that was big."

–Jimmerson went 3-for-7, but she nearly had three more hits. She hit a liner to the center fielder, another to the shortstop and a third one to the pitcher. She is 13 for 30 in OVC games with nine RBIs.

Who said

–Woodruff after showing so much excitement after her home run, which was the first of the year and gave JSU a 3-2 lead at the time: "I was so pumped. We had worked so hard, and we got a break, and it gave us the lead."

–McGinnis on Woodruff's homer, which came after a diving catch in center field: "Wow, Emily had a great catch that saved our inning and then hits a big home run. As a coach, that gets me excited."

What's next

–JSU will host Tennessee State (3-34, 0-8) at Choccolocco Park in a Sunday doubleheader at 1 p.m.

This article is written by Mark Edwards from The Anniston Star and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.