Vinton’s living the dream, Lions make rapid ascent to first state tournament

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The 2023 season has far exceeded the wildest dreams of the Vinton High School softball team.

The Lions hadn’t won more than nine games in a season since 2016 and had never won a playoff game.

“When we started the year, our goal was to win a playoff game,” Vinton head coach Garrett Coppels said. “It had never been done in school history.

“After we won the first round, it turned into that we have a shot to win the next one. Next thing you know, that turned into a semifinal appearance for the first time in school history.”

The No. 8 Lions will play No. 4 French Settlement at the Louisiana High School Athletic Association state tournament in Sulphur at 5 p.m. Friday in the select Division IV semifinals.

When Coppels took over the program after the 2017 season, the Lions (21-10) were coming of a five-win season, so he started to push to increase the commitment to the sport.

“If you had told me in 2018 that we would be playing in the state tournament, I would have said you are out of your mind,” Coppels said. “The numbers were low and nobody was really bought into it. I think that we have put in a lot of time with it compared to what it had been.

“We focus more on it. We have tried to build it. I think this group we have now is more involved in softball. They have played a lot more on their own. They were ready to play when they got here. Since they were little, they wanted to play softball at Vinton High School.”

Coppels noticed a change in his team about halfway through the district season. Vinton lost to top-10 programs DeQuincy and Notre Dame by a combined score of 22-1 in the first round of district. While they still lost to both teams in the second round, the improvement was noticeable, losing 3-1 to the Tigers and 2-0 to Notre Dame. It was their only losses in the last eight games.

“This group is so much more competitive; they want it,” Coppels said. “They want to be good.

“That is what we haven’t seen, not just in softball here, but in girls athletics in general. There has never been that competitive want to. This group has been one of the first ones to actually have that. It is making a difference.”

The Lions sealed their historic trip to the state tournament with a 4-3 upset of No. 1 LaSalle in the quarterfinals on the road Thursday. Junior pitcher Jaycie O’Conner struck out 12 and limited the Tigers to four hits, while shortstop Jolie Gary drove a pair of runs on a double in the fourth inning for the lead.

O’Conner (21-10) has been stellar in the circle with 245 strikeouts in 181 2/3 innings and a 2.89 earned run average.

“With her throwing like she did in the quarterfinals, it gives us a chance against anybody,” Coppels said. “When you are striking out 12 and only giving up two earned runs, there is an opportunity.

“From last year to this year, the jump has been unbelievable. You can tell she put a lot of work in the summer.”

The Lions get production throughout their lineup. Gary, Shalyn Lewis, Emma Planchard, Ryleigh and O’Conner have combined for 144 RBIs and 174 runs. They have outscored opponents 273-91.

“From one game to the next, it has been somebody different,” Coppels said. “Shayln Lewis, our catcher, has had a pretty good year batting in the two-hole.

“English has had some moments in the four-hole. Emma Planchard, our senior first baseman, has knocked in 30 and she has games where she has multiple extra-base hits. It has been a group effort at the plate.”