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KENLY — Stunned and staggered from the outset, the host North Johnston High varsity softball team refused to cave on a sunny, hot Friday evening on the George Daniels Field diamond.
And in a showdown of two championship teams with a combined record of 50-1 and with the prize being a berth in next weekend’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A championship series, the desperate Lady Panthers plated three runs in the bottom of the seventh before bowing 12-9 to South Granville in the opener of a best-of-three series to crown the East Region queen.
But despite ample opportunities, North Johnston, the Eastern Plains Conference queen, could not overcome the undefeated Lady Vikings’ six-run outburst in the top of the first inning.
“We can’t play any worse,” complained North Johnston head coach Chris Batten. “It was all self-inflicted; it was not like they did anything to us. We definitely played as bad as we can play.”
Added senior catcher Jada Santiago: “I don’t know what happened, but the defense definitely was not on.”
Thus, the Lady Panthers lost at home for the first time this season in falling to 27-2. South Granville, the class of the Northern Carolina Conference, stands 24-0 and a win away of playing for the state championship it was denied last season. The Lady Vikings captured the state title in 2016.
The runs allowed were the most in a single game for both teams this season. And South Granville’s six-run spree resulted in the most runs the Lady Panthers have allowed in an inning in 2018.
North Johnston had cut the deficit to 6-3 when South Granville, aided by a Lady Panthers defensive collapse, scored five more runs in the fifth inning.
“North Johnston is a great hitting team,” contended South Granville head coach Jackie Day. “We knew we were going to give up some hits. We played pretty good defense. We made some base-running mistakes, but you’re talking about freshmen and sophomores, and we can learn from that. We had no idea we would come down here and score that many runs.”
The Lady Vikings, with a lineup of only two seniors and several sophomores and freshmen, did not add to their total of a whopping 39 home runs, but they tagged junior right-handed North Johnston pitcher Amberlynn Pearce for 13 hits. A season-high eight Lady Panthers errors led to six unearned South Granville runs.
The six-run first featured singles by shortstop Emma Jones, second baseman Jenna Curry and left fielder Brianne Coleman. Center fielder Jordan Talley capped the uprising with a two-run triple. The Lady Vikings also benefited from a hit batsman and a costly North Johnston miscue.
North Johnston committed four errors in the five-run fifth, when third baseman Ally Goss, Coleman, right fielder Paige Strickland, first baseman Renee Boone and Talley each singled. Jones then belted an RBI triple in the seventh.
The Lady Panthers were not only hurt by base-running mistakes but their outfielders were burned with drives hit over their heads on three occasions.
“That’s going to happen,” Batten declared. “They did a good job of hitting the right pitch. But I didn’t see any need to change pitchers; she wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
North Johnston got two runs back in the bottom of the first when Santiago followed third baseman Lindsey Massengill’s double with her school-record 14th home run. Santiago hit a two-run homer in the first inning in her team’s third consecutive playoff game. However, she didn’t get to swing the rest of the evening — thrice being walked intentionally.
“I think it’s kind of funny,” Santiago reasoned. “I feel like they are scared of me. But I have enough confidence in our hitters ahead and behind me that we are still going to produce runs and get the job done.”
Day’s strategy of walking Santiago intentionally worked in the third, but did not in the fifth and seventh innings.
First baseman Lexi Godwin slapped an RBI single and Pearce helped her cause with a two-run single after Santiago drew an intentional pass in the fifth. After Santiago was walked in the seventh, Godwin responded with a three-run homer, a blast over the center-field fence. With the Lady Panthers trailing by the final score with one out, freshman Taylor Jones doubled before freshman South Granville pitcher Brooke Bowling retired the next two batters to end the game.
“She’s a freshman,” Day noted, “and she’s thrown that way all the time. But when you get this deep, everybody is good and you’re going to give up some runs.”
The Lady Panthers squandered opportunities in the third and fourth innings.
“I was unhappy about the first inning,” Batten acknowledged, “but we are a great hitting team and I felt we would snap back and give ourselves a chance. We had runners at second and third (in the third) — and got nothing; and runners at first and third in the fourth — and got nothing. Two base hits in those situations and it’s a 11-10 game in the sixth inning. We did everything we could wrong and still had some opportunities.”
Thus, game 2 is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at South Granville. If needed a third game will follow approximately 30 minutes later.
The Lady Panthers, ousted by South Granville in the third round last year, have traditionally not fared well on the Lady Vikings diamond, but Day admits: “Tomorrow could be a different day.”
“We won there my freshman year,” Santiago reminded. “It’s not like it’s going to be a surprise. I feel pretty confident and comfortable. We have been there before. I want to (win) on their field like they did on ours today.”
“We felt like their first inning was a fluke,” Batten insisted. “At least, this time, we have another shot. We’ll get back at it tomorrow.”
Score by innings:
WP-Brooke Bowling (22-0) 7 IP, 9 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 7 BB, 2 SO. LP-Amberlynn Pearce (19-2) 7 IP, 13 H, 12 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO.
LEADING HITTERS — South Granville: Jenna Curry 3-5, 2B, RBI; Brianne Coleman 2-4, 2 R; Jordan Talley 2-4, 2B, 3 RBI; Emma Jones 2-5, 3B, RBI; North Johnston: Lexi Godwin 2-4, HR, 4 RBI; Jada Santiago 1-1, HR, 2 RBI; Lindsey Massengill 2-4, 2B, RBI; Taylor Jones 1-2, 2B; Amberlynn Pearce 1-4, 2 RBI.