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Smash It Sports Vipers’ First Season in Oxford Makes Hiss-tory

Smash It Sports Vipers coach Gerry Glasco talks to the team after its season-ending, 2-1 loss to the Texas Smoke in the Women’s Professional Fastpitch semifinals Friday at Choccolocco Park. (Photo by Joe Medley)
Smash It Sports Vipers coach Gerry Glasco talks to the team after its season-ending, 2-1 loss to the Texas Smoke in the Women’s Professional Fastpitch semifinals Friday at Choccolocco Park. (Photo by Joe Medley)

Oxford, AL – Smash It Sports Vipers’ first season in Oxford, which deviated from plan from the beginning, ends with semifinal loss to Texas Smoke

By Joe Medley

Raina O’Neal’s take on the final game of the Smash It Sports Vipers’ inaugural Women’s Professional Fastpitch season in Oxford could’ve covered a lot of Vipers games.

“It was a tough one,” she said. “The close games are always different, because every step of the way, you’re thinking how important every single play is, every single pitch, so those are the real tough ones that you have to push yourself through.”

Sahvanna Jaquish’s solo home run in the bottom of the fourth inning gave the Texas Smoke the lead for good, and the fourth-seeded Vipers’ season ended with a 2-1 loss in Game 3 of their WPF semifinal series on Choccolocco Park’s signature field.

The Smoke (24-15) advanced the the No. 3 seed USSA Pride (20-16) in this weekend’s best-of-3 title series. The Pride swept the No. 2 Oklahoma City Spark in the semifinals.

Title-series games will start at 7 p.m. at Choccolocco Park.

Former Alabama standout Kelly Kretschman coaches the Pride, and former Atlanta Braves player Brandon Phillips owns the Smoke.

“Going to the championship as a first-year team, I’m extremely proud of them,” Smoke coach Tori Tyson said.

Smoke pitchers Savannah Show and Autumn Pease, the league’s pitcher of the year, tag-teamed to hold the Vipers to four hits and one run, on O’Neal’s RBI double in the fourth inning. Show struck out four batters and allowed four hits and one run with no walks in 5 1/3 innings. Pease, who won Game 2 on Friday, worked a perfect final 1 2/3 innings for the save with one strikeout.

The season-ending loss followed a familiar script for the Vipers (10-28).

“It obviously didn’t go our way,” said third baseman and All-WPF pick Makena Smith. “We didn’t have the best season, but I think we’ve come a long way from where we first started. New town, a lot of new faces, a lot of new people, but we wen through a lot of adversity as a team and a staff.”

First-year plan and first-year reality diverged almost immediately. Of seven Vipers draft picks, only first-round pick Ashley Rogers, fourth-round pick Smith and fifth-round pick Karly Heath played this season.

Rogers, recovering from a stress fracture on her right (pitching) forearm from the college season, didn’t pitch the first half of the season and didn’t hit full go until the final third.

Second-round pick Rachel Becker and third-round pick Kiley Naomi, both from Oklahoma State, likely would’ve been the Vipers’ middle infield. Naomi retired, and Becker chose Athletes Unlimited over the WPF.

Alabama pitcher Montana Fouts and catcher Ally Shipman were expected to be the team’s top draws. Fouts suffered a knee injury late in the college season, and Shipman suffered a surgical thumb injury in the College World Series.

The Vipers also lost pitcher Annie Willis to a midseason arm injury.

Imagine a three-game series with a healthy Rogers, Fouts and Amber Fiser in the circle, with a middle-infield battery of Becker and Naomi to back them. Fiser finished with four of the Vipers victories.

Imagine the stands with a transcendent player like Fouts and Shipman, her catcher, in uniform.

As it was, a largely young team soldiered on and suffered. Seventeen of their losses came by three or fewer runs, but they were 2-11 going into a week’s break and finished 10-28. They scored a league-low 103 runs and gave up a league-high 153 during the regular season, and they had the league’s lone losing record.

“It was a long summer,” Vipers coach Gerry Glasco said. “Any time you start a new league and a new team, and of course the draft was critically important the first year, and I think that we didn’t get Fouts here. We didn’t get Rogers here until the last couple of weeks of the season, and then we never did get Becker or Kiley Naomi here, the shortstop and second baseman that we drafted, and that just kind of put us behind.

“The kids that we did get here, and the kids that we asked to fill in, they played tremendous. Kids like Raina O’Neal took advantage of the opportunity and showed she can be an all-league type of player in this league. Jenna Kean showed how much talent she had. Kelsey Bennett filled in, Mikayla Allee. You’re talking about kids that we called up in June, and three or four days they’re here and giving us all they had the rest of the summer.”

Glasco, also the University of Louisiana head coach, said the Vipers have rights to their draft picks for two years. He expects Vipers general manager Don DeDonatis to overhaul the roster.

“‘Don D’ is going to go to work,” Glasco said. “He’s one of the best general managers in the league and has been the general manager for some of the most talented women’s professional softball teams in history of our sports. He’s going to rebuild, and he’ll pick this level of talent way up over the course of the next 12 months.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see what comes back here next year.”

The WPF elected to hold its postseason tournament in Oxford, and the Vipers won the opener in their best-of-3 semifinal series with the Smoke 2-0. Fiser carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning of Game 2, but the Smoke won 6-4.

Besides winning a game in the semifinal series, season highlights included the Vipers’ 11-9 victory over the Oklahoma City Spark on July 11. The Vipers rallied from an 8-0 deficit, and catcher Mary Iakopo ended it with a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth.

A healthy Rogers fired a no-hitter against the USSSA Pride on Aug. 5 and shut out the Smoke in Game 1 of the semifinals.

Smith, who made highlight-reel plays at third base and catcher a high-spirited chatter from the hot corner, and Suzy Brookshire made the All-WPF team as at-large picks.

The Vipers signed a five-year contract to play in Oxford, so the focus moves forward.

“I think that we’ve done the best we could with what we’ve had, and we turned it into a really great experience for us as players and the community of Oxford,” Smith said. “Every day, we came out here, and we tried to put on a show for you guys, and that’s a privilege for us and a pleasure that we get to do that.

“We’re thankful that we have such a beautiful stadium to play at and a great crowd to play at. You guys have a great community here, and I think that … we really felt welcome and at home. We can’t wait for next year for sure.”

Smash It Sports Vipers coach Gerry Glasco talks to the team after its season-ending, 2-1 loss to the Texas Smoke in the Women’s Professional Fastpitch semifinals Friday at Choccolocco Park. (Photo by Joe Medley)
Smash It Sports Vipers coach Gerry Glasco talks to the team after its season-ending, 2-1 loss to the Texas Smoke in the Women’s Professional Fastpitch semifinals Friday at Choccolocco Park. (Photo by Joe Medley)

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