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KENLY — The late-season clash of varsity softball conference champions took a dramatic, abrupt turn in the bottom of the sixth inning on a hot, sun-splashed Thursday afternoon on North Johnston High’s George Daniels Field diamond.
North Johnston, the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference champion, was limited to one hit through five innings and trailed 2-0, before breaking loose for five runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and conquered 3-A Big East Conference champion Southern Nash, 5-2, on its Senior Day.
The Lady Panthers, who completed their conference and regular season later Thursday evening against winless North Pitt, pushed their record to 15-4 and extended their winning streak to 12 games.
Southern Nash lost for just the second time in its last 15 games in falling to 16-4.
The Ladybirds went undefeated (10-0) in conference play and North Johnston needed a win against North Pitt to match that feat.
Neither head coach Chris Batten of North Johnston nor head coach Scott Collie of the Ladybirds downplayed the nonconference encounter’s importance.
Collie want the prestige for his Southern Nash squad with a victory against a team the caliber of North Johnston, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A East Region runner-up last season and ranked No. 7 among NCHSAA 2-A teams by MaxPreps.com.
Batten insisted the victory could help his Lady Panthers in the playoffs seedings.
Southern Nash plated a run in each of the second and third innings and rode the pitching of junior right-hander Carrigan Ewers (9-4) and solid defense. Ewers flirted with a no-hitter until second baseman Hannah Wall singled to the left side with two outs in the fifth.
But the afternoon came asunder for Ewers and the Ladybirds with one out in the sixth.
Senior third baseman Lindsey Massengill singled and senior shortstop Blayke Batten wound up with a single when her pop fly fell between Southern Nash second baseman Anna Strickland and right fielder Elizabeth Lamm. First baseman Samantha Davis singled in the first Lady Panthers’ run. Senior catcher Jordyn Scott executed a squeeze bunt to plate Batten for a 2-2 tie.
Senior right fielder Olivia Gachuz drew a walk to load the bases. Sophomore left fielder Emma Scott laced a two-run single. A Southern Nash error allowed Emma Scott to score the final run.
Emma Scott was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fifth inning. She struck out her first at-bat.
“I stayed ready,” she assured. I felt very good to be able to come back and redeem myself. I just had to do what I usually do and don’t get tense.
“I get a base hit and we score and go ahead. The pitch was middle outside and the middle is where I look the most. I was just very happy I was able to help the seniors (Amberlyn Pearce, Batten, Massengill, Jordyn Scott and Gachuz) out on Senior Day.”
Amberlyn Pearce, a right-hander, blanked the Ladybirds the last four innings to up her record to 8-3. Both teams managed six hits as a playoffs atmosphere existed.
Collie fretted over Batten’s pop fly that he felt like should have been caught.
“For 5 1/2 innings, we played really well,” he contended, “but the game changed on that little blooper to right field. When you are playing a team like North Johnston, you can’t give them extra opportunities. It’s very disappointing.”
Southern Nash struck in the second inning when Ewers slugged her sixth home run, a line shot over the left-field fence. The lead became 2-0 in the third. Shortstop Taylor Bailey doubled and raced home on junior catcher Elisabeth Collie’s single.
Chris Batten admitted his players were beginning to feel sorry for themselves and he challenged them to show a little backbone.
“We went up to bat with a lot more determination — especially when we got somebody on base,” he said of the Lady Panthers’ response. “We got the bunt down and, once we did that, we really did run the bases well. We’ve been dead in the water like this before and a little spark was all it took.”
Emma Scott contended the Lady Panthers simply needed to “dig deeper and have each other’s backs.”
Chris Batten explained the game had been scheduled early in the season, but was in jeopardy when scheduling conflicts surfaced. With both teams having scheduled games canceled, the coaches were able to find a date.
“The game means a whole lot,” Batten insisted. “We wouldn’t have played it if it hadn’t. Both of us really wanted to play it. (The outcome) should make a difference if they don’t screw us around with the adjusted MaxPreps rankings.”
Added Scott Collie: “The girls were excited to play them. North Johnston has a great program and a great tradition. We know that we are a good team and, if we win this game, we make a statement.”
Collie pointed out the Ladybirds’ losses have been to formidable opponents in 3-A Cleveland and Clayton and 2-A North Johnston.
“We’ve got to find a way to win games like this,” he declared. “We are a play or two away. We’ve got to figure out a way to make that play.”
Score by innings:
Southern Nash 011 000 0 — 2
North Johnston 000 005 x — 5
WP-Amberlyn Pearce (8-3) 7 IP, 6 H 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO. LP-Carrigan Ewers (9-4) 6 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO.
LEADING HITTERS — Southern Nash: Elisabeth Collie 2-3, RBI; Carrigan Ewers 1-3, HR; Taylor Bailey 1-3, 2B, R; Kiersten Cooper 1-3, Alexa Daniel 1-3; North Johnston: Emma Scott 1-2, 2 RBI; Samantha Davis 1-2, RBI; Jordyn Scott 1-3, RBI; Lindsey Massengill 1-3, R; Blayke Batten 1-3, R; Hannah Wall 1-2.