Codi Horne has some advice for you: be careful if you want to race her friend and Lewisville softball teammate Chloe Thomas to the parking lot.
"She's gonna push me down and get there first," Horne said, smiling. "I think that's kind of the center of the whole team."
Thomas is one of the best softball players in the state and the competitive magma bubbling in her core is one of the biggest reasons. Her dad, Lewisville's coach Jerry Thomas, said that his daughter is competitive in anything, whether racing her friend to the car or winning the Thomas family's beach vacation UNO tournaments.
Thomas' fire flared up Friday night during the Lions' 1A Upper State championship game against McBee.
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She sliced a ball into the right field corner in the bottom of the first inning, reaching third. The throw to third was dropped and Thomas turned the corner to race home, sliding in for the 1-0 lead. The Lions doubled their advantage in the bottom of the fifth, Alexis Odum getting aboard after the McBee pitcher plunked her and later sliding home following a wild pitch and passed ball. The 2-0 win sent the Lions to their first state championship series in school history.
"Over the moon," said Chloe Thomas. "That final pitch, I was like, 'this is it! We're going to state.' I'm very excited."
The breakthrough was cathartic because Lewisville was in the same position last year, needing just one win to brush past Dixie and into the state finals. But Jerry Thomas said his team's mental approach was spoiled by a fatal flaw: they leaned on the wiggle room of a possible second game too much.
"All the pressure ain't on us, we've got a game to spare. Well, that was the wrong way to think about it," he said earlier this week.
Dixie took advantage of the Lions' timidity, winning the first game. Junior Amber Bass said Lewisville players tried to play it cool before the second game, but that there was a palpable nervousness creeping into the dugout. Dixie took the second game as well, winning by a single run and leaving the Lions on the outside of the state championship series again.
"It was awful," said Bass. "I still think about it to this day."
Lewisville has reached the Upper State tournament each of the last six years, averaging 22 wins per season and playing in the Upper State finals three times. But the Lions hit a wall each time.
Thomas said her mindset this year has been on strikeouts. In other words, finishing.
The aggressive approach embodied Lewisville's dealings with McBee Friday night. Thomas said she had a hard time focusing on school this week, and it was clear she may have been a little too fired up at times against the Panthers. She walked two batters in the first two innings, but even as she battled jitters she never faced more than four batters in an inning.
She got all the help she needed from her defense, including a sweet play from Horne who threw out a runner in the bottom of the sixth while seated on the infield dirt. Crocker did a split at first base to make the catch and the out.
Horne, a junior second baseman, missed most of the season after surgery on her shoulder. "It was a very trying time," she said, but she's returned with a firm bang, hitting .520 with 10 RBI since spring break. Horne's time standing in the dugout injured gave her some perspective on what put the Lions in position to win a state championship.
"Definitely the bond," she said. "We all just kind of click. Usually, you have different cliques -- there is three girls over here, four girls over here -- but we all joke around, have fun together."
It also helps to have a dominant pitcher, Thomas, who just happens to have one of the most dangerous bats in the state on her shoulder. Prior to Friday night, the Limestone signee was hitting .600 with five home runs and 50 RBI, and she was 19-4 on the mound with 203 strikeouts and just six walks in 136 innings. Her earned run average was 0.82.
"We're one of the best hitting teams in 1A, but we do have the help of Chloe," said Bass. "I think they get timid against her."
Thomas' studly stats aren't outliers. Six Lewisville players are batting over .400, led by Horne and Bass, who is hitting .488., and Crocker, who bats ninth. And five Lions have hit home runs this season. They busted open a close game with Ware Shoals in the second game of the Upper State tournament by scoring 10 runs in the third on the way to a 19-1 win. Those flash floods of scoring have happened throughout the 2018 season.
Lewisville had scored 72 runs in its previous five games, including 52 in the playoffs, before Friday's pitching duel.
"When we're hitting, it takes a lot of pressure off of (Thomas)," said Horne. "But having her there really takes a lot of pressure off the defense."
At the beginning of the season, all of the Lewisville players signed a ball that has words on it representing the characteristics they want to have for each other, like "confidence" or "teamwork." It's a kind of contract.
"When you sign the ball, you say, 'hey, I'm putting the team first,'" Horne said.
That mindset was on display Friday night. Thomas struck out the final batter and shrieks and screams filled the air as she and her teammates embraced in a 13-girl group hug. Their coach didn't join them.
"The work's not done. That's where I'm at," said Jerry Thomas.
The 1A state championship series begins Monday at 6 p.m. at East Clarendon.