Lake Ridge pitcher Kaly Gonzales acknowledged to her coach how badly Forney needed a series victory after the death of a teammate. Richard W. Rodriguez rrodriguez@star-telegram.com
Lake Ridge pitcher Kaly Gonzales acknowledged to her coach how badly Forney needed a series victory after the death of a teammate. Richard W. Rodriguez rrodriguez@star-telegram.com

Mansfield Sports

Lake Ridge softball’s dream season ends with series much bigger than sports

By Shawn Smajstrla

ssmajstrla@star-telegram.com

May 24, 2017 12:44 PM

As Forney junior Caroline Tedder emotionally made her way around the bases following a two-run homer in the fifth inning of the decisive Game 3 between the Lady Jackrabbits and the Mansfield Lake Ridge softball team in their Region II semifinal series on Saturday, Lady Eagles coach Cindy Manley began her march to the circle to remove pitcher Kalyssa Gonzales.

“They’re just going to need it more than we are right now,” Manley told the freshman.

“You’re right coach, they need this,” Gonzales responded.

High school sports like softball exist to teach youngsters life lessons. But sometimes you get thrown a curveball you’ve never seen. A pitch that’s simply impossible to hit. That’s where Lake Ridge found itself this past week.

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The other side is that had Forney lost, those kids that are hurting so badly right now would have felt worse. The only thing they have going for them right now is winning.

- Lake Ridge softball coach Cindy Manley, on the difficulty of challenging a team that had just suffered a tragedy

News quickly spread last Wednesday about the tragic death of Forney freshman softball player Emily Galiano, who was accidentally struck and killed by a vehicle leaving a team function the night before — a vehicle driven by a teammate.

Softball has its own community, one that extends beyond school district lines. Several Lake Ridge players knew Galiano personally, or at least knew of her. A few are teammates with Forney players in club ball. When the Lady Eagles gathered Wednesday morning, mere hours after the accident and hours before what was supposed to be Game 1 of the series, the impact was evident.

“My kids were pretty dang torn up,” Manley said. “Most just cried, they didn’t even speak.”

Immediately, the team went to work on plans to show support for their opponents — the No. 1 team in the state and the next obstacle in a magical run for Lake Ridge, easily the most impressive in program history.

The girls sent a team photo to Forney, posing with a sign honoring Galiano. On Thursday night at Game 1 in Kennedale, the Lady Eagles wore black and gold bows in their hair — Forney colors. During announcement of lineups, each Lake Ridge player offered a yellow rose to a Lady Jackrabbits player.

Lake Ridge won the game 1-0.

“My plan for them was, when you hear the national anthem, you get back in softball mode,” Manley said. “I don’t care if you cry when you hand them a rose, that’s OK, they’re going to be crying, too. You do anything you need to, but when you hear the national anthem, get back in softball mode. And they did. Forney did, too. It seemed like a normal game, but maybe more quiet.”

By Friday night’s Game 2 in Rockwall, the groundswell of community support for Forney had grown. Fans, families and supporters packed the stands and standing-room only spaces around the field.

As unique and bad as circumstances were for Forney, the only team that could claim a close second was Lake Ridge.

“It was hard on our kids,” Manley admitted. “They knew the entire world wanted them to lose. That’s a hard place to be.”

Lake Ridge didn’t play well, and Forney evened the series with a 9-3 victory. The Lady Jackrabbits then built a big lead in Saturday’s Game 3 before holding of the Lady Eagles, 7-5, putting an emotionally confusing end to Lake Ridge’s dream season.

“I feel like we just gave the No. 1 team in the state a run for their money, which means we could be there, too. But the other side is that had Forney lost, those kids that are hurting so badly right now would have felt worse. The only thing they have going for them right now is winning,” Manley said.

“If it had been a week earlier? I don’t know,” she added. “I hate to even talk about that, because it makes it sound like they only won because of [Galiano], and there’s no way that’s true. They won because they played better.”

As Forney celebrated following its proverbial emotional roller coaster, Manley was left with a crushed group of girls who had been along for the ride. There’s no chapter in the coaching handbook for this one.

“I told them, ‘You were in a no-win situation. You left it all on the field. You had the tying run at the plate. You did everything you could,’” she said. “We were so proud of them. I think they knew it. I’ve been coaching 33 years and I have never been more proud than I am at this very moment.”

When it all seemed over, just before the Lady Eagles boarded their bus to return home, there was one final twist to the plot. Denny Galiano, Emily’s father, tracked down Manley.

“He said, ‘I’m Emily Galiano’s dad,’” Manley recalled. “I just hugged him and started crying. He said, ‘I just need to tell you I can’t believe how special you guys made my family feel. Thank you so much for everything.’

“This guy has just lost his child and he’s thanking me? That was pretty impressive. Our kids are heroes in Forney’s eyes, because they made them feel comforted. It was meaningful and I hope the kids understand how impressive they were.”