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De Queen endures season of heartache, reaches first final

To a girl, the De Queen Lady Leopards laughed through tears.

In a season filled with joy and tragedy -- the latter endured disproportionately by their coach -- it was easy to see shades of both after the Lady Leopards 12-7 semifinal victory over the Vilonia Lady Eagles in the Class 5A state softball tournament at the Sherwood Sports Complex on Monday.

De Queen has played in six semifinal games in 17 seasons under Coach Tracy Nealy, but it will play in its first championship game Friday at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

Nealy said his team's new level of success has served as a salve for his damaged spirit. His 28-year-old daughter J.K. Nealy died in her sleep at her parents' home as the season began . He lost his father last month and an uncle in January.

"It's been a really tough season for me and for our kids, too," Nealy said. "We've had some adversity. Needless to say, 2017 has been a tough year for me."

"They dealt with a lot," said Vilonia Coach Kevin Sullivan, a 1997 De Queen graduate. "They used that as a driving force, and you could tell they were confident that they could get out there and win it for him, and they did. They earned it."

On Monday, senior pitcher Josie Vaught led the way for De Queen with four consecutive shutout innings after she surrendered four runs in the top of the second inning. She also contributed three hits, including a two-run home run that pulled De Queen (28-4) within 4-3 in the bottom of the second.

"Josie has been spectacular for us this season," Nealy said.

"She did a great job today," Sullivan said. "As a matter of fact, we've seen her the last three years, and today was her best day, and she swung it well, too."

Vaught fought through tears to speak moments after the game.

"I had a couple of angels watching over me," she said. "It really gave us a purpose to go out and win today. We kind of played our whole season for them."

Vaught's home run followed a leadoff home run by second baseman Meagan Martz that helped ignite De Queen's offense, which scored five runs in the third inning and four in the fourth to take a 12-4 lead.

"Those home runs put them right back in the game, and they built on that," Sullivan said.

"After Meagan hit that home run, it gave me a little more confidence when I went up there," Vaught said. "After that, I knew I could do it. Running around the bases was a great feeling."

Vilonia's comeback attempt was stalled in the sixth inning when a bases-loaded, two-out opportunity for third baseman Kristen Wade's drive fell just short of the fence and into center fielder Makyla Jackson's glove.

Vilonia (21-10) scored three runs in the seventh inning and had runners at second and third with two outs when designated player Natalie Hare flied out to Jackson.

Twenty minutes after the game, Nealy's delighted and tearful team gathered near him.

"You girls really were my rock this year," he said.

VALLEY VIEW 4, GREENBRIER 3

Montanna Smith struck out 12 batters and Valley View defeated Greenbrier. Smith allowed 3 runs on 5 hits in 7 innings.

Kaylea Roethlisberger and Katie Dreiling each had two hits for the Lady Blazers, the No. 1 seed from the 5A-East Conference. Roethlisberger drove in three runs.

Jaylee Engelkes started for the Panthers, allowing 4 runs on 8 hits in 6 innings.

Sports on 05/16/2017

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