BUFFALO — The shadow of a fourth straight Class A state championship hung over the Buffalo softball program like a storm cloud to start the season.
The Bison battled themselves more often than opponents in the early going, leading to a surprising 1-5 record. Now, the clouds have parted and Buffalo is experiencing nothing but sunshine and rainbows after again finding the formula that has produced three straight state titles.
Senior starting pitcher Chelsey Parkins fired a four-inning no-hitter and struck out six as host Buffalo took a 10-0 victory over Wirt County in the opener, then junior hurler Ali Burdette finished off the doubleheader sweep by tossing a one-hit shutout and whiffing 16 in the nightcap.
Buffalo (12-4), which was second in this week’s state poll and received four of the nine first-place votes, has won 11 in a row and hasn’t lost since April 5, a 5-4 loss at Class AAA Point Pleasant. The Bison are also fresh off of rolling to the Class AA-A title in their own tournament — the Best of the Best Softball Classic — with an undefeated mark last weekend.
“We just had a lot of talks,’’ said Buffalo senior left fielder Katie Higginbotham of working past the rough patches. “I think it was just us finally saying, ‘You know what? The fourth [state championship] doesn’t matter. Right now is the game we’re playing.’ We had a lot of pressure on us for that fourth state title. We were really tense for those first six games.
“We finally said it’s in the future and we have to focus on now or we’re not going to get there if we keep playing like we are. There’s a lot of pressure when teams come to play us. They play their best ballgame against us and they want to beat Buffalo. It doesn’t matter what class they’re in. There’s normally not many breaks. We had a blast last weekend. We’re having a lot more fun.’’
Granted, Buffalo faced a daunting early season schedule that included Scott, Class AA No. 1 Sissonville, Class AAA No. 5 Lincoln County, Class A No. 4 Sherman and Point, but still wasn’t playing up to its lofty standards, which have been set sky-high after winning five state titles since 2002.
“We weren’t hitting or making plays when we had runners on,’’ said Higginbotham, who as the lead-off hitter in the batting order is responsible for setting the tone. “That’s my job to get the bats rolling and to get [my teammates] ready to hit, too. That’s my biggest goal, whatever it takes to get on [base].’’
The turning point came in a 3-1 setback at Sherman earlier this month.
“We had a little heart-to-heart and made a couple of substitutions and moved some people around,’’ said veteran Buffalo coach Darrell Moore. “[The players] got an idea that we might be making some changes and people started stepping up.
“We played Point Pleasant pretty good, they beat us 5-4. We had an opportunity to win that ballgame. We were up on them most of the ballgame and a couple errors at the end that I felt were lackadaisical and [Point Pleasant] scores a couple of runs to pull ahead of us. After that, our kids said, ‘Hey, we can play with anybody in the state.’ So far they haven’t lost and we’re doing well.’’
Parkins said the entire roster has picked up the intensity.
“I just think we started working together,’’ said the West Virginia State recruit. “It was everyone. I don’t think it was one specific person. Everyone started stepping up in games and practices.
“Just a team effort. At the beginning it wasn’t the best, but now our atmosphere, it’s good. If we can keep hitting the ball like we’ve been hitting, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.’’
Buffalo’s offense had everyone involved Wednesday in sweeping Wirt (15-8), banging out 10 and 14 hits, respectively.
The Bison sent nine batters to the plate in two of the first three innings of the opener and secured a 9-0 lead. Higginbotham went 2 for 3 and drove in a run while sophomore Chase Christy pounded out two hits, including a double, and knocked in a run and junior Courtney Allen and Burdette laced two hits apiece. Parkins also singled in a run. In the nightcap, Higginbotham and Allen each went 3 for 4 and senior Whitney Dingess and juniors Taylor Briscoe and Olivia Dunn cracked two hits each.
With just a week and a half left in the regular season, Moore can see the pot of gold at the end.
“I think we’re back in the groove,’’ he said. “We’ve got the leaders that are hitting the ball for us. That’s what it takes. At times we’ve been lackadaisical. We’re playing with the desire that we want to be back where we were last year.’’
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.