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Action from the East Central Regional Tournament in Oxford

After almost three months of softball games, each AHSAA class has been narrowed to eight teams as the state tournaments get set to begin at Lagoon Park this week. With high expectations entering the year, Holtville was ranked near the top of Class 4A all season in the Alabama Sports Writers Association rankings and the Bulldogs are set to participate in the final eight for the first time since 2012.

“All eight teams earned this,” Holtville coach Daryl Otwell said. “When you get down to it, every team has good players. They all have college athletes and they’re well coached. Everyone belongs here.”

After defeating No. 10 Leeds, Holtville (41-10) qualified for state as the second team from the East Central Regional. The Bulldogs had their eyes set on No. 1 and despite missing out on some big opportunities, they extended their season one more week.

“From a coach’s perspective, I didn’t think we played well at all,” Otwell said. “We made some uncharacteristic fielding mistakes, left a lot of players in scoring position and (pitcher) KK (Dismukes) wasn’t at her best. But we still beat a lot of quality teams to get here.”

After losing her no-hitter in the seventh inning of a first-round win over Oak Grove, Dismukes saw some struggles in the circle compared to what she’s used to. She allowed six hits and walked a season-high four batters but struck out 10 batters along the way in a 4-2 win over Northside.

Things did not get any easier against No. 5 American Christian and those struggles became clearer on the scoreboard. For just the sixth time in her six-year career, Dismukes allowed seven earned runs in a game and ACA pulled away with a 9-7 victory.

Dismukes allowed a season-high nine hits and once again walked four batters while striking out just three, a career-low for a seven-inning game. Dismukes responded well with a 10-strikeout performance against Leeds but Otwell said the Bulldogs will need her at her best against the teams in the state tournament.

Holtville will get started Friday morning against No. 3 North Jackson. The Chiefs (28-7) are entering the state tournament on a six-game winning streak where they have outscored their opponents by a combined 62 runs.

“They’ve been here before,” Otwell said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence and they’re coming in with a mindset of wanting to finish it this year.”

North Jackson is in the state tournament for the second consecutive season after facing heartbreak a year ago. The Chiefs won the first two games at Lagoon Park to come within one win of a state championship but lost two straight to finish third in 4A.

Josie Thompson will be the top pitcher for the Chiefs and is expected to get the start opposite Dismukes in the first round. Thompson was named to the ASWA all-state team last year and has 132 strikeouts in 114 innings pitched this season.

“They were in the mix last year and made a good run at it.,” Otwell said. “They’ve got a great lefty pitcher who throws hard and throws a lot of strikes. She gives them a chance to win every time.”

Holtville will need two wins Friday to advance to the second day of play. If the Bulldogs win the first game, they will be matched up with the winner of Dale County vere No. 4 White Plains while a loss would match them with the loser of the same game in an elimination game at 4 p.m.

The top five teams in the final ASWA rankings of the season are in the state tournament. No. 1 Alabama Christian and No. 7 Good Hope are matched up while American Christian takes on Rogers to finish out the first round.

While Holtville’s expectations continue to be sky high, Otwell wants his players to make sure the magnitude of the moment does not get the best of them. He wants to make sure they have fun because he said that is when they play their best ball.

“We want to stress to them to enjoy the moment — relax, play hard and compete,” Otwell said.

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.