Back for a three-peat? St. Amant overcomes obstacles to make return to state softball tournament

by William Weathers // Contributor

St. Amant senior center fielder Makinzey Elisar was moments removed from making the defensive play of the game in last Saturday’s 9-8 state quarterfinal victory Sam Houston when she reflected on her team’s journey.

The two-time defending Division I nonselect state champion Lady Gators had navigated a season’s worth of mind fields to prepare them for their third consecutive state tournament.

Without the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year and Class 5A Outstanding Player of the Year, pitcher Addison Jackson who signed with Boston College, this year’s St. Amant team heard the whispers of their apparent demise.

For the first time in 12 years the Lady Gators didn’t win a district championship, but the program showed its mettle and reached a highwater mark in Saturday’s come-from-behind 9-8 state quarterfinal win over Sam Houston.

“I feel like a lot of people this year kind of doubted us, kind of said we weren’t going to be as good as we were last year,” said Elisar, a returning first team Class 5A All-State selection. “Just to be able to prove everybody wrong, to know that we’re a good team and we could do it. Even though we didn’t win district, we didn’t let it get to us. We know that wasn’t our final goal. Our final goal was to play on the last playing date.”

Third-seeded St. Amant (23-10) will get the opportunity to do just that, first facing a familiar foe in order to reach this year’s Division I state championship game.

The Lady Gators, which opened the 2024 season with a 10-8 loss against Southside on Feb. 13, will face the second-seeded Lady Sharks at 5 p.m. Friday in state semifinal action at North Frasch Park in Sulphur.

“I think there was doubt from the get-go with a lot of people, other than ourselves, with the big pieces we graduated last year,” St. Amant softball coach Amy Pitre said. “Obviously, one in the circle (Jackson) being a big one. We always have a goal to play at the end. The last playing date is always our goal.”

Because of the play and leadership of the team’s six-member senior class, led by Elisar, an LSU Eunice signee, LSU third base signee Alix Franklin and second baseman Mary Beth Zeller, the Gators have maintained the standards of a program that’s won eight state championships.

This year’s senior class, which also includes Emmaleigh Theriot, Samantha Laindaiche and Gracie Bercegeay, share a special bond with Pitre, one that dates to the travel ball careers when Pitre first coached them and guided them to a U14 national championship in 2019.

Franklin and Zeller have started at St. Amant since they were freshmen in ’21.

“I said this (U14) ring that you’ll get is not the real one,” Pitre said. “You’ve got to try and get the real one when you get to high school. That’s what is so special, that we have a shot to do something really, really good. We started doing some really good when they were real young.”

They’ve been parts of St. Amant last two state titles with an opportunity to close their career with three straight titles.

Arriving at that conclusion may have appeared foggy in the brisk temperatures of February and March. Coupled with another demanding schedule, St. Amant has emerged with more losses than in recent memory but have given themselves the chance to play on the final day of the season – at 3 p.m. Saturday.

“We were upset we didn’t win district,” Pitre said. “We always talk about the journey. Early on we had a lot of close wins. Most of our losses (five) were by one run. If we could just stick together, keep fighting, and clean up things and that’s kind of what we did. We just attacked our weaknesses. We believed we’d be here at the end and here we are.”

The team’s young and unproven pitchers at the beginning of the season – Braylee Decoteau, Hailey Hebert and McKenzie Smith – have grown into complementary roles to support an offense that’s been tasked for additional production this season.

St. Amant had the luxury of following the leads of pitchers Alyssa Romano and Jackson in recent years, players that were capable of logging significant innings and performing in clutch situations.

Pitre said this year’s staff has worked more in unison with Decoteau (17-5, 2.75 ERA, 132.1 IP, 112 Ks), Hebert (3-3, 3.44, 40.2 IP, 44 Ks) and Smith (3-2, 3.64, 19 Ks) the team’s top arms this season.

“It’s been a group effort and that’s what it takes to fill in the spot we lost,” Pitre said. “We said if we were going to do this, we’re going to need all of you. You all bring something really good and something really different. No matter who gets the start, and within a seven-inning game, you’re going to see a few of them.”

St. Amant’s offense has heeded the call of providing additional help with nearly nine runs a game. The Gators are batting .372 with 59 doubles, 27 homers, 34 sacrifice bunts and 63 stolen bases.

Moreover, the Gators also have a solid .942 fielding percentage.

Franklin’s a returning Class 5A All-State selection and leads St. Amant in hitting (.541), home runs (16), runs (65) with 40 RBIs, 15 stolen bases and seven doubles.

Franklin’s one of four players hitting .400 or better followed by Elisar (.470, 19 RBIs, team-high 28 stolen bases), Zeller (.407, 9 doubles, 2 homers, 34 RBIs) and right fielder Bailey Ducote (.402, 6 doubles, 21 RBIs).

First baseman Kinley Meche (.360) leads the team in RBIs (42) and doubles (11) and has four homers.

“We were very honest and told them we were going to have to score more,” Pitre said. “For years we’ve always had a number of runs we felt real comfortable scoring. This year it obviously went up and our girls understood that. Our practices have really been focused on producing runs any way we can.”

St. Amant lost its grip on a district title for the first time in 12 years, dropping a pair of one-run games to parish rival Dutchtown, and finished second in the 5-5A race.

The Gators went 10-7 in their last 17 games, falling 5-2 to nationally ranked North DeSoto followed by a pair of one-run setbacks in district play to Dutchtown and state tournament team Live Oak. They completed the regular season on April 9 with an 11-8 loss to John Curtis, the No. 2 team in the Division I select bracket.

Following an opening-round bye St. Amant steamrolled Central, 16-0, in regional play before withstanding a back-and-forth quarterfinal battle with Sam Houston.

The Gators twice trailed from three-run deficits in the first 3 ½ innings before staging the type of comeback reminiscent of a two-two state champion.

They trailed by a run after the fourth and it was Elisar’s two-run double in the fifth that gave her team the lead for good. She also delivered a highlight-reel throw from center field to catcher Brooke Rabalais that snuffed out the potential tying run for a game-ending double play.

“This whole season has been rocky,” Elisar said. “We’ve had some really hard struggles this season and to see it all come together, and for us to know that we can fix those things and do it, makes this really emotional.”