Eastern Alamance’s softball team cleared the latest hurdle in its quest for the NCHSAA 3A state championship with a 14-0 blowout victory Tuesday night at home over Cedar Ridge in the third round. The Eagles blew away the Red Wolves with a huge offensive explosion, as the Eagles belted three home runs and added three doubles to improve to 20-2 on the season.
“That was a big win for us. I love when we come out hitting. That takes a lot of pressure off myself. Then when you’ve got a stud pitcher like we’ve got out on the mound - it makes a whole lot of difference. We haven’t been jumping on teams. It finally kind of clicked in a little bit, and we jumped on them (Cedar Ridge) pretty good,” Eastern head coach Danny Way said after the game. “Our schedule is one of the toughest in the state. And I think that kind of pays off when you run into something like this. This is a very good team (Cedar Ridge). I think we just shell shocked them.”
After star pitcher Kenna Raye Dark held the Red Wolves off the scoreboard in the top of the first inning, the Eagles set the tone for the game by scoring three runs for an early 3-0 cushion. The lead increased to 6-0 in the bottom of the second inning, as Dark crushed a line drive home run over the left field wall. Dark’s blast was followed by a Morgan Lawson hit, and then another long shot over the left field wall by Madelyn Lawson. Before the second inning was over, Cedar Ridge changed pitchers, switching from Taylor Barnes to Olivia Aitkin.
After the Red Wolves went down in order in the top of the third, the Eagles broke the game open even further with five more runs. Kyra Jones led off with a bunt single, though she would be thrown out at third base on a subsequent fielder’s choice. Cedar Ridge elected to intentionally walk Kenna Raye Dark, but Morgan Lawson came up and nailed a three-run homer deep over the right field fence, making the count 9-0.
Continuing the onslaught, Madelyn Lawson and Hailey Batista stepped to the plate and ripped back-to-back doubles into the gap in left field, followed by a drive into the right field power alley by Haleigh Palmer, which scored both Lawson and Batista to make the score 11-0 in favor of the Eagles.
Coach Way attributed the Eagles’ impressive hitting against Cedar Ridge not only to their dedication in practice, but also to pent up frustration after several weeks of not hitting to their full potential.
“There was nothing slow about this game,” Way said. “I think by us not playing for two weeks (prior to the playoffs), that kind of hurt us. Not having a conference tournament, that hurt us. We had come off a loss at North Davidson. There was a lot of practice. We try to do live pitching and mix our practice plans up. So it’s been hard. I left mad many days after practice, because I know what we’re capable of.”
“We knew it was going to happen,” Way added. “We talked about how we’ve been working hard. When we do our practices, we have all the machines out. We have the cages. Our coaching staff really helps me when we have all that hitting stuff out on the field. We were due, because we’ve been working on hard on different speeds. We went from North Davidson to this (the state playoffs). We just do drills. Every spot on the field, you just have to stay focused.”
Cedar Ridge collected a pair of hits in the top of the fourth inning for its biggest threat of the evening against Dark, but the EAHS freshman worked her way out of the jam. With the possibility of a “Mercy Rule” victory looming, Eastern came up in the bottom of the fourth and settled the issue with three more runs. Morgan Lawson continued her torrid hitting with a double to right field. Moments later, Madelyn Lawson hit a hard shot that was too hot to handle for the Cedar Ridge shortstop, which tallied the final two runs of the game. Dark easily handled the Red Wolves in the top of the fifth to finish it off.
Madelyn Lawson finished the game a perfect 4-for-4 with three runs and four RBIs, while older sister Morgan Lawson went 3-for-3 with four runs and three RBIs. Palmer was 3-for-3 with three RBIs, while Dark went 3-for-3 as well with one run and two batted in. Batista and Makiya Graves also drove in runs for the victorious Eagles.
Dark went the distance in the five inning shortened game, allowing just three hits while striking out 11. Cedar Ridge only once got two runners on base against her, in the fourth inning, but never seriously challenged beyond that. Dark improved her overall record to 18-1 on the season, while picking up her 11th shutout of the spring. Her earned run average continues to hover around 0.58 - a remarkably stellar number for such a young pitcher.
Eastern now looks ahead to a fourth road showdown with Cleveland - the same team that defeated the Eagles 3-2 last season in the third round of the NCHSAA 3A playoffs.
This time around, the game will be in Mebane. And this time around, the game will have even higher stakes.
To the winner of this state quarterfinal matchup, there awaits a berth in the Eastern Regional championship series - a best two-of-three showdown - against either D.H. Conley, the No. 1 overall seed, or Southern Alamance, who the Eagles have already defeated once this season, and also defeated last year in the second round of the state playoffs.
“We’ll take a look at them (Cleveland),” Way replied. “We’ll just prepare. We’ll go back to the same hitting stuff. We’ll put machines out. We’ll do hitting. We’ll do a bunt circuit. We have the cages with machines. We have all the tees out. It takes us about 30 minutes just to bring everything out and put it up. The coaching staff has to throw balls, and just keep them focused. I cut back on practice as well (this time of year). We do about 45 minutes of hitting, and 45 minutes of defense, trying to keep them fresh.”
Way, who indicated that this is one of the most relaxed groups of softball players he’s ever worked with, has been walking a line throughout the season with his young team from the standpoint that he wants them to be loose, but he doesn’t want them to be cocky or over-confident.
“This is the loosest team I’ve ever had in the 12 years I’ve been here, or the nine years I’ve been a head coach,” Way said. “They dance at practice. I just let them have fun, and just let them kind of do what they want to do until it gets crazy, and then I’ll stop it. We talk some of the things we did well, and some of the things we did bad. We’ll have a practice plan (for Cleveland), and we’ll just go back to work. And they know that.”
Eastern’s freshmen and sophomores have joined veterans such as Morgan Lawson and Cameryn Bass by peaking at just the right time. Together, they’re playing their best softball right when they want to be.
And if they can find a way to win just three more games, they’ll be competing for a state championship.
“We practice together. We work out together. We practice the JVs and varsity together. Whether you’re a freshman or senior, you’re going to take the same amount of fly balls and ground balls. You’re going to get the same amount of swings. Because you don’t ever know when something is going to come up,” Way said. “ Maddie Lawson, she throws three or four days a week, just in case (we need her to pitch). I think that’s the key. They get the same reps. So now the freshmen are really sophomores, the sophomores are really juniors, and the juniors are really seniors."