PLEASANT PLAINS — It didn’t take long for Midland’s Lady Mustangs to figure they were good enough to win the Class 1A state softball title last spring.
From day 1, they were believers. When they beat Viola in the state championship game at the University of Arkansas’ Bogle Park to finish 30-6 with the only girls state championship in school history, belief became reality.
“We started out with the attitude that this is where we wanted to get to,” coach Brett Barber said of just his second season at Midland. “It was our ultimate goal, and the girls worked hard.”
Senior Brooke Williams agreed.
“Honestly, starting out, when I saw who all was on our team and what kind of talent we had, I knew we had a really big chance to win it,” she said. “I have known the girls on my team since they were little.”
Midland started out 5-0 with wins over bigger schools, such as Southside Batesville and Melbourne. The Lady Mustangs reached the final of their classic against Buffalo Island Central, “a pretty good power in (Class) 2A,” Barber said, where, without third baseman Olivia Floyd, the Mustangs fell by just 4-1.
“At that point, I knew,” Barber said. “The girls had a lot of confidence coming in. When we beat Nemo Vista in the regional final, 8-1, we controlled the game, and that’s when I could really see us starting to come together. I knew we were peaking at the right time.”
The Lady Mustangs were 1A-2 South Conference co-champions with South Side Bee Branch after splitting two meetings, losing 4-0 and winning 2-1. The Lady Mustangs beat the Lady Hornets in the final of the district tournament, 4-3. In the Region 3 tournament, Midland took care of Wonderview, 11-0; Mount Vernon-Enola in the semifinals, 2-1; and Nemo Vista in the final, 8-1.
In the state tournament, Midland handled Taylor, the two-time defending state champ, in the first round, 11-7.
“We were down 4-2 in the sixth inning and had 5 outs left,” Barber said. “But we scored 9 runs in the sixth. They came back and scored 5 in the seventh, but we held on to beat them.”
From there, Midland knocked off Armorel in the quarterfinals, 3-1, and South Side Bee Branch again in the semifinals, 6-3.
Junior Paisley Pratt took the state-championship win over Viola to finish 26-5 on the mound with a 1.42 ERA.
The state title, obviously, is the highlight of Barber’s coaching career.
“Just getting to play in Bogle Park was an experience all in itself,” he said. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
The seeds for this championship were sown in 2013, Barber’s first season at the school.
“I knew we had a lot of potential, but I also knew we were very young,” he said of his 2013 squad, which was freshman- and sophomore-heavy. “But they got a lot of experience last year.”
In 2012, Midland’s season ended in the district tournament, but in ’13, the Lady Mustangs won district, finished runner-up in the regional and eventually lost 4-0 in the state tournament quarterfinals to Taylor, which was then in the midst of its two-year run, to finish 21-12.
“We played them a heck of a game, and that experience gave us a lot of confidence coming into this year,” Barber said. “We got a ton of experience for a young team. We had lots of close losses last year.”
This year, the only losses came against Buffalo Island Central, Izard County Consolidated, South Side Bee Branch, Melbourne, Batesville and Harding Academy.
The bulk of Midland’s championship squad was juniors, including Pratt, center fielder Emily Stephens, shortstop Carly Fisher, second baseman Sidnie Burnett, first baseman Madison Miller and right fielder Savannah Ferguson. Sophomores Whitney Reeves, catcher, and Kelly Lytle, left fielder, and freshman third baseman/pitcher Olivia Floyd were also huge, so the Lady Mustangs look to be formidable next year as well, when they’ll move up to Class 2A.
“We’re still pretty young,” Barber said. “I know we’ll have 12 coming back from this team. We’ll have to come from the other direction. This year, everybody kind of got to know the name. I would hope we’re one of the top ones, even though we are moving up.”
Barber, 35, graduated from Newark High School and Arkansas State and began his career as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Lyon College. From there, he spent a year at Palestine-Wheatley, where he coached softball, and four years at Timbo, where he coached “every girls sport offered.”
In 2012, he “finally got an opportunity to come back home,” he said.
“I call the Batesville area my home, and when I got the opportunity to come back, I took it,” he said.
He also coaches the Lady Mustang basketball team, and most of the girls play both sports.
“They’re just a great group of girls, and they absolutely love softball,” he said. “They would play it year-round if they could, and some of them actually do. Some of them play travel ball, which is a big-time factor in our success. Just being able to play year-round helps tremendously.”
Williams played second until injuring a wrist while sliding and had to miss about three weeks. She returned in right field about 10 days before the district tournament.
She’s chosen to go out on top, hanging up her cleats with the trophy to concentrate on her studies in early-childhood education at Arkansas Tech University this fall.
“I’ve been playing baseball and softball for 14 years, and this was my last one,” Williams said. “The girls and I had an understanding. They did their thing, and I did mine. I didn’t have to lead them because they knew what they were doing.”
Of all her coaches, she said Barber was her favorite because “he respected his players and got the most out of them.”
And she figures that will continue in 2015.
“I guarantee they’ll at least be in the state final,” Williams said. “I know they have another chance to win it next year, and if they get there, I’ll be at that state championship game, definitely.”