AIKEN -- If you can ignore all the drama, it was one heck of a championship series.
But that's tough to do.
Nonetheless, when the decisive Game 3 came to close on Saturday afternoon at South Aiken High School, the Bluffton Bobcats were on the wrong side of a 1-0 decision, giving the Byrnes Rebels the Class 4-A state softball state championship.
"My kids never gave up," Bluffton coach Bill Ball said. "The girls kept fighting. I'm proud of them. They were doing a great job before all the nonsense started. It's a shame all the nonsense happened."
The "nonsense," as an exhausted Ball called it, likely had fans and players alike wondering what could happen next. A successful appeal of an on-the-field call, a prolonged struggle over when and where the remainder of Game 2 and Game 3 would be played and, last but not least, a massive storm created a six-day, four-site, three-game series that resulted in nearly 1,300 miles of travel for the Bobcats and Bluffton faithful.
Despite all that, the title was still there for the taking for the Bobcats (28-5). They were trailing 1-0 at the end of three innings when lightning, rain and hail put a halt to Game 3 on Friday night at Spring Valley. But when the game picked up Saturday at South Aiken, the Bobcats couldn't scratch one across against Byrnes ace Bailey Pearson (15-4).
Pearson had already showed her mettle in the early innings Friday night when she pitched around Jordyn Parker's leadoff triple in the third.
"I felt like that decided the series right there," Byrnes coach Brandi Aiken said after the Rebels' celebration Saturday. "That was big."
Pearson was just as tough Saturday, scattering three hits and striking out five over the final four innings.
The Bobcats' best chance came with two outs in the seventh. Morganne Parker hit a soft grounder right back at Pearson, but nerves appeared to get the best of her and her throw went straight into the ground. Mikyla Houghlin followed with a routine grounder to second that Tatum Arboleda flubbed.
Suddenly there were Bobcats on the first and second for freshman Taylor Gleason. With two strikes, she lofted a liner to right that had trouble written all over it. Allison Neely mistakenly came in first then lost her footing and almost went to the ground. But she recovered in time for a circus catch and the celebration began for the Rebels (26-5).
"We just needed that one hit to hang on there," Ball said.
The 1-0 loss marked the fist time all season the Bobcats had been shut out. And the loss disguised what was a masterful performance by senior ace Courtney Smith (27-5).
She surrendered a run without the benefit of a hit in the first inning, thanks to a throwing error, a passed ball and a sacrifice fly. Before the game was suspended, she gave up a harmless single to Katie Burnett in the third inning.
And that was just about it. On Saturday she faced 13 batters, allowing no hits and striking out three, conceding only hit batter in the ninth.
"The only thing that kept it from being fun was all the drama. That took all the fun out of it," the Limestone-bound Smith said. "We didn't hit the ball, but we played amazing defense."
Ball said he knew what kind of series to expect when he went through his ritual of posting the opposing team's scouting report in the Bobcats' dugout prior to Game 1.
"I put up the scouting report in the dugout for comparison, their strengths and weaknesses and our strengths and weaknesses," Ball said. "... I looked at them and said, 'Girls, it looks like we're playing ourselves.' We both had a good pitcher who's a senior with control, a fighter. Power in the middle of the lineup, speed. We were playing ourselves."
The result of the matchup was three one-run games. The tightness of the series only served to further Ball's frustration with the decision making after Byrnes' Game 2 appeal was upheld.
The Bluffton coach remains convinced the change of venue for the replay of the final three innings from Bluffton to Lexington to Spring Valley in a nine-hour span had a negative effect on his squad.
The Bobcats played sloppily in the completion of Game 2, narrowly holding on for a 3-2 win before giving up what would prove to be the winning run in Game 3 thanks to uncharacteristic mistakes in the field.
"My kids were rattled," Ball said. "It was just a bad vibe."
Ball said he still expected an explanation as to why Bluffton was forced to surrender its homefield advantage for the end of Game 2.
On Thursday, Ball said the agreement to surrender the homefield was a "district directive." He was still visibly angry on Saturday.
"This is not a dead issue," Ball said. "We deserve an explanation."
Ball said he wanted to know if this was an isolated incident with Bluffton or if other schools would have to deal with the perceived lack of support by the school district.
"What if this is just a precedent?" Ball asked.
The drama aside, this Bluffton team is the best in school history, improving on last season, when the Bobcats fell to Summerville in the Lower State Championship.
"I don't think that any of us are disappointed," Smith said. "We made school history when we came this far. We played out hearts out. We played the Bobcat way."