SALE CREEK, Tenn. (WRCB) -- Clifford Kirk was not there in body, yet the Sale Creek softball coach was quite visible when the Lady Panthers returned to the field Thursday afternoon.
Unfortunately, a traumatic 24 hours seemed to take its toll on his team.
Whitwell rallied with four runs in the top of the eighth inning to claim the Region 3-A title with a 5-1 win over host Sale Creek in a game that was suspended Wednesday night when Kirk collapsed on the field.
"The sun will come up tomorrow and we'll still get to play tomorrow. We'll just have to go on the road," said Sale Creek principal Tobin Davidson, who stood in as an assistant coach for the team. "We just thank the people from Whitwell who were among the first responders last night. Today was just a chance for two communities to come together and take care of a job.
"The important thing that we're most thankful for is that Coach Kirk is going to be okay."
The legendary coach's condition improved greatly Thursday after what doctors termed a "cardiac event" related to a pacemaker malfunction, but he remained hospitalized in Erlanger's ICU.
The teams held a moment of silence for prayer before the game resumed. Sale Creek players wrote Kirk's initials "CK" next to a heart on their arms and Whitwell players wore blue ribbons in their hair to show support.
"It wasn't hard (to play) because we wanted to do it for him," said Sale Creek pitcher Brittany Lanham. "But we were a little down when it started, and we just can't be that way. We needed to move on and forget about everything and play softball."
The game resumed at the exact point it was suspended, tied at 1-1 with one out in the bottom of the seventh and Sale Creek's winning run at second base.
The Lady Panthers were able to push that game-winner to third, but Kirby Webb popped into a double play that ended the threat.
Whitwell quickly pounced in the first extra frame, scoring four runs to seal the win. Hailey Andregg's RBI-single scored Alyssa Coppinger with the go-ahead run, then Kathleen Sledge blew it open with a two-run double.
Kacee Hedrick also drove in a run with a double to cap the win, which clinched home-field for the Lady Tigers in Saturday's sub-state game against Trousdale County. "These girls responded so well to the adversity in getting those two outs to get us going and we executed."
"We tried our hardest to get past what happened, but obviously we also kept Clifford in our thoughts and prayers," said Whitwell head coach Grace Pickett.
The Lady Panthers kept their heads held high despite the defeat. Their remarkable first-season under Kirk's direction will continue Friday with a visit to Gordonsville in sectional play. The winner advances to next week's Spring Fling.
But before they leave, Lanham expects the team will hear from Kirk a few more times.
"He's probably going to be mad that we lost, but he's going to just tell us to make sure we win tomorrow, for sure," she said. "We're going to do everything we can to win that game for Coach."
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