Eastern Alamance High School’s softball team claimed the school’s first-ever NCHSAA state softball championship Sunday afternoon with a thrilling 4-2 extra innings triumph over West Region champion Central Cabarrus on the campus of UNC-Greensboro. The Eagles were extended to a third game after splitting a pair of games with the Vikings on Saturday. And while EAHS never trailed on Sunday afternoon, it was a gut-wrenching game that went down to the wire.
“We worked really hard (to get to this point),” EAHS head coach Danny Way said moments after picking up his first state title. “The 2013 (Eagles) team, they really set the standard back in that day. We always brought the 2013 team up every time we had a practice or game. This 2019 team is absolutely something special.”
Pitching her third game in a little over 24 hours on Sunday afternoon, Eastern star freshman pitcher Kenna Raye Dark shut down Central Cabarrus through the first four innings, though she got plenty of help from the Eagles defense. In the bottom of the second inning, senior center fielder Morgan Lawson made a fantastic diving catch, leaping full extension to snag a fly ball to her right in the left field power alley.
“I ran out there as soon as she caught it,” Dark said of Lawson’s catch. “When I saw her dive, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ So I ran out there and said, ‘Good job Morgan!’ It was an awesome feeling.”
The game was scoreless until the top of the fourth inning, when the Eagles finally broke through against Central Cabarrus starter Brantleigh Parrott, who like Dark, is also a freshman.
EAHS catcher Hailey Batista got it going with a one out single, which was followed by a hot shot off the bat of first baseman Makiya Graves that bounded past the Vikings first baseman and was misplayed by the second baseman, allowing Batista to advance to third base.
The large crowd of Eastern Alamance fans who had made the short western trek from Mebane to Greensboro stood up and cheered loudly as the Central Cabarrus battery and infielders came together for a quick huddle.
“Oh my goodness - the whole community and school (was here). It’s great. It’s a great feeling,” Coach Way said. “I love playing in front of a crowd like this. I wish we could play in front of a crowd like this all the time. That’s great for our kids. But playing away, and playing a really tough schedule - we had a really tough schedule this year. One of the toughest in the state. And I think that helped us today.”
The Eagles elected to try a safety squeeze, as third baseman Haleigh Palmer dropped down a well-placed bunt in front of the mound on the third base side.
As Batista crossed home plate for the game’s first run, Palmer was safe following a high throw by the Central Cabarrus third baseman. EAHS had a chance to break it open, but a double play killed the threat.
Eastern pushed its lead to 2-0 in the top of the fifth inning, as Kyra Jones led off with a single over the shortstop’s head into left field. Dark came very close to a home run, but her deep shot to the left field warning track was caught by the Central Cabarrus left fielder.
Jones tagged up on Dark’s long out, and wound up scoring when Madelyn Lawson knocked a fly ball to left field that was misplayed, allowing the EAHS sophomore shortstop to advance to second base.
Dark took a no-hitter into the bottom of the fifth - an astounding feat for a freshman pitching in her first state championship game, and in her 19th inning of work over the weekend to that point.
“We were going all the way with McKenna,” Way said. “She’s really brought us here, and we were just going to ride her until we could not ride her anymore. She did a super job as a 15-year-old freshman.”
“Yes, it is (the most innings I’ve ever pitched in a weekend),” Dark said later. “I felt like my arm was going to fall off. I was asking the shortstop (Madelyn Lawson) if she wanted to help me. She looked at me and was like, ‘No.’ I was thinking, my arm is going to fall off.”
Central Cabarrus finally got after the tiring hurler in the bottom of the fifth, as Christina Brendle crushed a Dark fastball deep over the center field fence to pull the Vikings within 2-1. It was easily the hardest ball hit off the Eastern freshman phenom all season, and the only ball an opposing player hit over the fence for a home run all year off Dark.
The Vikings would get the tying run on base as Dark walked the next batter, but two straight strikeouts and a groundout ended the threat.
The game wound into the fateful bottom of the seventh inning with Eastern clinging to its 2-1 edge. Brendle, who had homered earlier off Dark, once again got ahold of one and drilled a deep fly to left center field that eluded a diving Morgan Lawson. Brendle reached third with a leadoff triple.
After Dark struck out Lexi Butcher for the first out, the Vikings went for the same play that scored Eastern’s first run - the safety squeeze. Baily Ruble dropped a bunt along the third base line that was fielded by Haleigh Palmer. Brendle raced by her just as Palmer turned back to try and tag her, and scored the tying run. A sacrifice bunt would get the winning run to second base for the Vikings, but Jenna Endsley grounded out to send the championship game into extra innings.
As they’ve done all season for the Eagles, the Lawson sisters - sophomore Madelyn and senior Morgan - came through in a moment of real pressure. Madelyn led off the top of the eighth by ripping a double over the head of the Central Cabarrus center field for a double. That set the stage for the final at-bat of Morgan Lawson’s Eagles career.
It was an at-bat for the ages.
As Lawson fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch, she maintained that friendly smile that is one of her trademarks.
In this crucial moment, Lawson seemed as calm, and as if she was enjoying the moment, as much as just any other at-bat during her outstanding senior season.
“She’s always been that way,” Way said of Lawson’s smiling, calm nature in such a clutch moment. “Even when she was a little girl, she’s always smiling when she did something bad, or did something good.”
After working the count to 3-2, and fouling off yet another pitch, Lawson finally straightened one out and lofted a high shot to right field that cleared the fence. The EAHS players were all too eager to meet the euphoric Lawson at home plate for a jumping, shouting team cheer as the Eagles fans cheered wildly.
“Morgan Lawson - for her to go out like that, to be a senior - man, that was super. I knew where we were in the lineup. I just had that feeling all day that we were going to do something special,” Coach Way replied. “She’s been a four-year starter for us. It’s been a privilege to coach, and just to be around. She’s such a great kid. It was very, very special. She had a super day. I’ve seen here at practice - she’s done a lot of this stuff you see now at practice. For four years, I’ve seen a little bit of everything.”
In the bottom of the eighth, Dark, in her 22nd inning of work over the course of the series, got some more defensive help. Kyra Jones made a spectacular leaping catch in left field for the first out. It would prove to be huge, as Central Cabarrus refused to go down without a fight.
After Lacie Coubal was hit by a pitch, Riley Tucker blooped a shot into short right field that just eluded the glove of Eastern second baseman Cameryn Bass. The Vikings had the tying runs on base with just one out, but Dark bore down and coaxed a popout from Destiny Thornton to Madelyn Lawson at shortstop.
Two outs. Two run game, bottom of the eighth.
Up steps Christina Brendle, who tagged Dark for the home run that broke up her no-hitter earlier in the game, and who had scored both of Central Cabarrus’s runs. Visions of a dramatic walk-off homer surely danced in the heads of the Vikings fans, but Dark and the Eagles simply weren’t to be denied.
“I was just thinking, ‘She’s not going to come back up here and hit it out again. She’s not going to do anything like that again,’” Dark said of Brendle’s critical two-out at-bat in the eighth inning.
Working into a favorable 1-2 count, Dark dropped a fastball over the outside corner for a called strike, ending the series and setting of a wild celebration on the field and in the bleachers.
“This is a great feeling. A win is a win. We played a really good team here,” Way said. “I was drinking out of a cup. I looked down at my cup, and my cup was shaking a little. But I knew I had to stay calm. They look at me. If I go crazy or something, they go crazy. I just tried to stay as calm as I can.”
Morgan Lawson was named series MVP for her clutch homer, though the award could have easily gone to Dark for her heroic marathon pitching.
“It’s an awesome feeling for her. I’m really happy for her, and she deserves it (the MVP),” Dark said of Lawson.
One of just two seniors in the regular starting lineup for the Eagles, Lawson was also a four-year varsity starter. She emerged as a leader for the team with a positive attitude that helped the team when the chips were down.
“Everybody on the team knows I’m not a big talker,” Lawson said. “I’m not going to go out and yell at people and be a stereotypical senior who picks on the freshmen. I just lead by example, don’t get an attitude with the coaches.”
And in the end, Eastern Alamance has its state championship.
It’s a well-deserved prize for a group of dedicated, hard-working young women who are role models to their classmates and younger peers in the Mebane community. And with mostly freshmen and sophomores in its starting lineup and only three seniors graduating out - just two of which were starters - EAHS could very well find itself in this position yet again in the coming years.