Harp-Puckett Field was the last place that Noel Tiller wanted to be last Wednesday.
Broken-hearted as they were, Tiller and her Jellico High School softball teammates felt it their duty to play for Ashley Bruce, a former teammate, who was killed in a tragic car accident the night before while returning home from work.
The Lady Blue Devils split Wednesday’s doubleheader with rival Campbell County, winning the first game, 6-2, in memory of Bruce.
“Ashley was my best friend, and I’ve played ball with her since Little League,” said Tiller, who struck out 10 batters to earn the decision.
“She always caught for me when she played. As tired as I was, and as much as I just wanted to go home and forget about it, I played for her.”
After an abbreviated school day, the Lady Blue Devils gathered at the home of teammate Brittany Hughes to console one another.
Wearing black armbands and hair ribbons, the Jellico girls played inspired softball to defeat their county rivals.
“I just really wanted to dedicate the game to Ashley because when she played, she always fought to the end and gave it her all,” said Hughes, who pitched in relief and smacked a triple in the bottom of the first inning to get the Lady Blue Devils on the scoreboard first.
“Our team is like one big family, so losing Ashley was like losing a family member.”
Hughes scored on a throwing error to put Jellico up 2-0.
Lyndsi Tomblin put Campbell County on the board with an RBI triple in the top of the second inning.
Tiller drove in teammate Courtney Baird with an RBI triple in the bottom of the second to make it 3-1 in favor of the home team. Jellico got a little sloppy with its fielding in the top of the third, when the Lady Cougars scored what turned out to be their last run to pull within 3-2. Campbell County’s Latosha Carroll managed to escape a rundown between second and third base, then scored on an overthrow at third.
Victoria Huddleston drove in Tiller with an RBI single in the bottom of the fourth. Tiller worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the fifth inning and then turned the mound over to Hughes in the top of the seventh. Tabitha Jones got on board with a double in the bottom of the fifth and later stole home for the final run of the game.
“I really like how our team pulled themselves together and fought hard on the field in the wake of Ashley’s death,” said coach Nancy Douglas.
“Our girls are close, and, to them, it’s ‘Once a Lady Devil, always a Lady Devil’.”
Campbell County won the second game, 15-9. Afterwards, both teams gathered around the pitcher’s mound —hands clutched — for a time of prayer and remembrance.
“What I miss most is looking over at first base and seeing (Ashley’s) big beautiful smile,” said Huddleston, who plays third base for Jellico.
“She really had a heart for the game. Although I was running on three hours of sleep, nothing was going to stop me from playing that game for her.”