Eastern Alamance’s softball team found itself in a strange position heading into the bottom of the fourth inning of Friday night’s NCHSAA second round playoff game against Wilson Fike.
The Eagles were trailing, as star freshman pitcher Kenna Raye Dark had been out-dueled to that point by Fike senior starter Leann Pittman, who held the home squad off the scoreboard for the first three innings.
Maintaining their composure, the Eagles - the No. 2 seed in the East Region - put together a string of big hits in the bottom of the fourth on their way to an eight-run inning, propelling the Eagles to an 8-1 triumph that advances Danny Way’s club to the third round of the state playoffs for the second straight May.
The game started out as a classic pitcher’s duel, with Pittman and Dark matching each other pitch for pitch early on. Reagan Hartley made a fantastic play in right field for the Eagles in the top of the second, fielding what appeared to be a hard-hit opposite-field single by Pittman, and gunning her out at first base.
Eastern tested Fike catcher Elizabeth Secrest in the early innings, as the Eagles attempted to steal second base in the bottom of the second after Hailey Batista led off with a walk, and in the bottom of the third after Kyra Jones led off with a base hit up the middle. But both runners were thrown out by Secrest.
After Dark reached on an error and Morgan Lawson walked with two outs in the bottom of the third, Madelyn Lawson drilled a base hit into center field. The Eagles had sent in a pinch runner for Dark for a little extra speed, but Fike center fielder Lydia Hunt came up with a brilliant throw at home plate for the final out of the inning.
Fike scored the game’s first run in the top of the third, taking advantage of a pair of walks by Dark. A fielder’s choice moved the two runners into scoring position, and Lindsey Curlings came through with a base hit into center field to give the visitors from Wilson a 1-0 lead.
The Eagles managed to get out of the top of the third inning with some key pitching and defense. Madelyn Lawson fielded a ground ball at shortstop and threw out a would-be Fike run at the plate for the second out. Moments later, Dark struck out Lydia Hunt looking to end the scare.
Dark was in complete control the remainder of the game, getting out the final 13 batters that she faced.
Freshman first baseman Makiya Graves provided the equalizer for Eastern in the bottom of the fourth inning, belting a deep home run over the left field fence to make the score 1-1. Graves’ homer unleashed an offensive onslaught by the Eagles, which broke the game open.
Soon after, Haleigh Palmer doubled, and Cameryn Bass moved Palmer to third by ripping a single into left field. With two outs, Reagan Hartley worked a 3-0 count against Pittman and hit a well-placed grounder deep in the hole at shortstop. Hartley hustled and beat out the critical throw, allowing Palmer to score, and giving the Eagles a 2-1 lead.
Dark came up and promptly put the issue to rest, as she crushed a three-run homer over the left field wall to give Eastern a 5-1 advantage. Fike changed pitchers at this point, going to its own freshman Jada Lamm, but the Eagles continued their two out rally.
Morgan Lawson nailed a single to right field, and promptly reached second on a wild pitch. Her younger sister, Madelyn, also reached base, setting the stage for Batista. Eastern’s catcher stepped up and crushed a deep shot that bounced against the base of the chain-link fence in right center field. The Lawson sisters both came around to score, making the count 7-1.
Graves returned to the dish and crushed a blast within a few feet of Batista’s two-run double moments earlier. Graves’ second extra base hit of the inning drove in the final run of the game, giving the Eagles an 8-1 cushion. Seven of Eastern’s runs in the fateful bottom of the fourth came with two outs, as the Eagles batted around.
The remainder of the game was anti-climactic, as Dark shut down the Demons, and Fike’s young pitcher Lamm managed to hold off the Eagles off the board the rest of the way.
Haleigh Palmer made a pair of solid defensive plays at third base to get Eastern through the top of the fifth, while Dark helped herself by catching a popup in the top of the seventh. Dark finished off her 17th victory of the spring thus far with a strikeout.
Dark led the way with three RBIs for the Eagles through her home run, while Graves and Batista each drove in a pair of runs, and Reagan Hartley one run.
With the win, the Eagles improved to 19-2 on the season, and moved into the Sweet 16 round of the NCHSAA state playoffs. EAHS will remain at home on Tuesday evening (May 14) for another home game in Mebane. The Eagles will take on Cedar Ridge, who will make the short trip across the Orange County line from Hillsborough into Mebane for this key postseason showdown.
Cedar Ridge, the No. 10 seed in the East Region, went to Morehead City Friday night and stunned No. 7 seed West Carteret, the undefeated champions of the Coastal 3A Conference. The visiting Red Wolves earned a 6-3 triumph over the Patriots.
In an interesting irony, Cedar Ridge’s softball team is coached by Allen Byrd, who also happens to be the Assistant Chief of the Mebane Police Department. The Red Wolves will come over to Mebane with an overall record of 21-2, and a 13-1 record in Big 8 Conference play, which tied for the regular season title. CRHS is also on a 12-game winning streak.
As the Eagles move farther and farther into the playoffs, the matchups will only get tougher. The opponents all the more impressive.
For the Eagles, who have a resume that matches up with anyone, they’ll continue to try and take things one step at a time.