BELTON — Similarities between Belton softball players Taylor Tubbs and Madison Cotton don’t reach much past the obvious.
“Brown hair,” Cotton suggested while glancing at Tubbs.
“Nose rings,” head coach Matt Blackburn quipped.
Of course, other commonalities do exist among the two engaging student-athletes who aren’t lost for words in conversation. They both are college-bound seniors, right-handed pitchers and teammates who enjoy watching their peers succeed. Though, Tubbs conceded, “We’re pretty opposite.”
Doled the task of characterizing the Lady Tigers’ current playoff run, however, the two couldn’t have been more like-minded, describing this season’s journey to the Class 6A Region II quarterfinals — the playoffs’ third week — as redemption following two years of bowing out in the second round.
They also agreed winning a few more games would be ideal as the ends to their final campaigns draw nearer.
“We’re ready to fight, redeem ourselves and show people we’ve worked hard and we’re here to win,” Cotton said.
Cotton, Tubbs and Belton (31-7) need two more victories to match the program’s deepest playoff advancement, last reached in 2016 when the pitchers were freshmen learning the ropes. Standing in the way is Rockwall (26-10). A doubleheader is slated for 6 p.m. today, weather permitting, at West High School. Game 3, if necessary, is noon Saturday.
The Yellow Jackets beat Killeen Shoemaker in the bi-district round and Plano last week. Belton swept Mesquite Horn then battled past Prosper in three games over the weekend to reach this point. The winner plays either Spring or Klein Collins.
Not surprising, Cotton and Tubbs grew up playing softball. Cotton said she started when she was 4. Tubbs was 7. Years of youth leagues, travel ball and high school parlayed into collegiate opportunities, with each signing letters of intent earlier in the school year. Cotton is headed to Houston Baptist and Tubbs to Texas Wesleyan. Along the way, they’ve improved and proved to themselves what they’re capable of on and off the field.
“I’m more of a leader than I thought I was and, under pressure, I’ve been able to show everyone what I’ve got,” Tubbs said.
“I’m a way better leader than freshman year. I’ve learned to just kind of ignore the negative things and focus on the things that matter, things that are most important,” Cotton said. “I’ve gotten better at letting things go. So, if I’m having a rough day on the mound or throw a bad pitch, just let it go and focus on the now.”
They mostly were spectators on the aforementioned 2016 Belton squad that reached the regional semifinals, tossing a handful of innings combined during varsity non-district tournaments while seeing most of their action with the JV.
Since then, the two have been utilized in a variety of ways within Belton’s pitching staff. As sophomores and juniors, they alternated every couple of innings each game. This season, Blackburn implemented a three-pitcher rotation that also includes junior Hannah Kelley. In these playoffs, though, Cotton and Tubbs have led the way in the circle. Each picked victories in the first and second rounds.
“That first year for (Cotton and Tubbs), I just kind of wanted them to kind of be around (former Belton pitcher and current Baylor righty Sidney Holman) more than anything and be around an older pitcher that had been on varsity four years, see how things work and see how things operate so when they are seniors themselves, it’s second-nature,” Blackburn said. “They go about their business. It’s been fun to watch them grow up. To watch them mature as an athlete, and a pitcher, I think them learning me and me learning them has kind of led to what we’ve got going.”
Blackburn said Tubbs is a “precision” pitcher while Cotton is “more of a power pitcher.” Despite those different approaches, their statistics are comparable.
Cotton is 11-1 this season with 83 strikeouts and a 2.23 ERA in 78 1/3 innings. Tubbs, who missed the last couple of weeks of the regular season while recovering from a tonsillectomy, is 10-1 with 74 strikeouts and a 2.44 ERA in 66 innings. Kelley (10-5) has fanned 70 in 65 1/3 frames.
“Them, including Hannah, have got us to where we are at. They’ve done a really good job of doing what I’ve asked them to do as far as pitch location. I mean, we are not trying to strike everybody out. We’re trying to get pop ups and weak ground balls, and they’ve done a really good job of that this year,” Blackburn said.
“But I think more than anything, get a couple runs on the board and these two really go to work. You can see their nerves go away and they pitch a lot more comfortable.”
If that’s the case, Cotton and Tubbs must feel like they’re pitching in the clouds.
The Lady Tigers are hitting .425, averaging 10 runs per game and have hit 50 home runs heading into this weekend’s series.
“Takes weight off the shoulders knowing that you have a little bit of cushion,” Tubbs said. “And knowing that if you happen to give up runs that your offense can still back you up.”
There-in lies Belton this season: Someone there to reinforce the other in a unified system.
“There is something that happens your senior year when you start to realize that every game could be my last game, and you just go to work and try to give it everything you’ve got,” Blackburn said.