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KENLY — Power and the ability to put the bat on the ball with authority throughout the lineup may be the signature of the formidable North Johnston High varsity softball team.
However, the Lady Panthers’ ability to execute in the clutch and capitalize upon the opposition’s mistakes propelled them to a 5-2 triumph against Bartlett Yancey on the George Daniels Field diamond Friday evening under threatening skies and into the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A East finals for the first time since 2013.
North Johnston, the Eastern Plains Conference queen and the No. 2 seed among the 32 East Region qualifiers, converted the Lady Bucs only two errors into a pair of unearned runs and protected the lead with aid of a double play in each of the last two innings. Bartlett Yancey hopes were all deflated when the Lady Panthers turned a double play in the top of the seventh when the Lady Bucs had base runners at second and third bases with no outs.
“We played well,” assessed fourth-year North Johnston head coach Chris Batten. “Yes, we dodged some bullets but, when you have two good teams going at it, everybody dodges bullets. We made good plays to get out of it.”
Thus, the Lady Panthers emerged with a 27-1 record and now await the winner of Monday night’s showdown between No. 1 South Granville and Whiteville for the best-of-three East final.
Bartlett Yancey exited with many teary faces and a 23-2 record.
“I’m proud of them,” head coach Kelly McVay said of her Lady Bucs. “We were in there but we made a couple of errors. The team that makes errors loses.
“We were the underdog; people doubted us all year long. Everything we did in the playoffs was a plus. We’ve never been here (state quarterfinals) before. We have a great team — a lot better team than we showed tonight.”
Bartlett Yancey placed the Lady Panthers in peril in the top of the seventh with North Johnston ahead by the final score. The Lady Panthers’ only error and freshman third baseman Grace Watlington’s double left runners at second and third with no outs.
Senior Miranda Smith hit a grounder to North Johnston junior second baseman Hannah Wall. Wall alertly deked the base runner between third and home. She stopped; Wall flipped the ball to first base for the first out and senior first baseman Lexi Godwin’s throw to the plate nailed the Lady Bucs runner.
Another grounder to Wall ended the game and the Lady Panthers circled the infield in celebration.
“I was yelling to get the out (at first base) and protect the lead,” Batten explained. “But Hannah Wall knows her position and made a good, smart play. She makes the coach look a lot better than he is.”
Of the base-running mistake between third and home, McVay responded: “I’ll take the blame.”
Batten also looked “pretty smart” in the bottom of the sixth.
With two outs and Wall, who had reached on an error, situated at second base, Batten summoned freshman Gabby Hales to pinch hit. Hales delivered an RBI single that boosted the lead to 5-2.
“I was a little nervous,” Hales admitted, “but I knew (Batten) would make a smart decision. I was looking inside to begin with. But they told me that, when (Lady Bucs pitcher Hannah Thompson) gets two strikes, she goes outside. I was sitting back and waiting for the pitch to be outside.”
Explained Batten: “They had jammed Arial (Pearce) in every one of her at-bats. I have people in the dugout that I trust to go in and take an at-bat. Gabby is pretty laid back and I felt it wouldn’t overwhelm her.”
North Johnston never trailed after senior catcher Jada Santiago followed junior third baseman Lindsey Massengill’s two-out single in the bottom of the first inning with her 13th 2018 homer, a towering shot over the center-field fence.
Bartlett Yancey got a run back on an RBI single from freshman shortstop Rylie Webster, who batted 3 for 3. Then, in the top of the fourth, freshman center fielder Brittany Osborne tagged Lady Panthers junior right-hander Amberlynn Pearce (21-1) for a solo homer.
The Lady Panthers upped the lead to 4-2 in the bottom half of the fourth when Amberlynn Pearce singled and, who else, Wall followed with a run-producing double.
Batten commended his pitcher’s efficiency in keeping pitches away from the Lady Bucs’ top five hitters. Key hits and defensive gems completed the job.
“Doesn’t a coach always want to?” clamored Batten of leading his first team into the East final. “I thought we were good enough and we’ve got good pieces. That doesn’t always guarantee a win, but I felt like we were capable.”
Score by innings:
WP-Amberlynn Pearce (21-1) 7 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO. LP-Hannah Thompson 6 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 SO.
LEADING HITTERS —Bartlett Yancey: Rylie Webster 3-3, RBI; Brittany Osborne 1-3, HR; Grace Watlington 1-3, Emily Hyler 1-3; North Johnston: Lindsey Massengill 2-3, Gabby Hales 1-1, RBI; Jada Santiago 1-2, HR, 2 RBI; Hannah Wall 1-3, 2B, RBI; Amberlynn Pearce 1-3.