CHURCH POINT — Between stints at UL and UL-Monroe in the early 2000s, Michael Hardy coached college softball for five years and has seen the sports’ mountaintop.
Hardy was an assistant coach under Michael and Stefni Lotief when a 47-win Ragin’ Cajuns team punched a ticket to Oklahoma City in 2003 for the program’s fourth appearance in the Women’s College World Series.
But as a high school coach, Hardy has never seen Louisiana’s prep softball mountaintop — the state tournament at Frasch Park in Sulphur. Before Monday, he never been past the second round, including in his 10 previous years at Church Point.
Because of a recent rule change, the quarterfinals are no longer part of the state tournament, but Hardy is at least one step further than he’s ever been after the No. 20 Lady Bears’ 6-3 upset No. 4 Crowley in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs.
The quarterfinal trip is Church Point’s first since 1994, when the Lady Bears finished as the 3A runners-up. And winning a second playoff game this year, specifically, is special to Hardy.
“It’s my retirement year,” Hardy said, “so it makes it even more exciting.”
Church Point (17-13) now awaits the winner of the Kaplan-Pine Prairie game and will host the quarterfinal matchup if the fifth-seeded Pirates win. And to get this point, a freshman has carried the Lady Bears.
Madisyn Fruge, after holding Iowa to one run in the Lady Bears’ road upset of No. 13 Iowa in the first round, limited a potent Crowley lineup to three runs on nine hits while striking out seven. She also drove in three runs, including a go-ahead solo home run to lead off the fourth inning. It was her fourth homer of the season.
Fruge’s two-run single in the fifth was part of a fun-run inning — the Lady Bears took advantage of four Crowley errors in the inning — that gave Church Point a 6-1 lead. Crowley’s Skylier Baronet drove in a pair in the sixth to cut the deficit to three runs. But with the tying run at the plate in the seventh, Fruge induced a groundout and a fly-out to seal the victory.
“She gives us an opportunity to compete,” Hardy said of Fruge. “She hits her spots, so we can strategically place the defense based on where we know she’s going to throw the ball.”
Crowley, a semifinalist a year ago that finished the season 23-7, and Church Point split their two District 5-3A meetings last month. Both games were decided by one run, including a game-winning home run by Church Point’s Dakota Dupre in the first contest.
“I was kind of nervous at the beginning, being that we beat Crowley and they beat us, so I knew it was evenly matched,” Fruge said. “But once we started playing, I felt pretty confident about the game. I felt pretty confident we were going to have it.”
Just based on results alone, Church Point has had an odd year. After starting the season 4-7, the Lady Bears mounted a 10-game winning streak. Then second baseman Taija Jones went down with an injury that required surgery, and Church Point finished the regular season losing six of its final seven games. Jones’ first game back was the first-round win against Iowa.
Aside from Jones’ injury, youth and inexperience have played a part in the Lady Bears’ inconsistency. They returned just four starters from last year and have only one senior, center fielder Carlee Leger.
So seeing his young players succeed at this stage of the season, including limiting mistakes, is what makes Hardy proudest.
“I think the most rewarding thing is watching the kids go out there and compete,” Hardy said. “They’re young; they make a lot of mistakes. But the last couple of days, they’ve been able to play when it counted. We’ve lost a lot games this year on little girl mistakes, but the last two games, they have haven’t made many.”