Eastern Alamance’s softball team claimed the NCHSAA 3A East Regional championship Thursday night, as the Eagles defeated top-seeded D.H. Conley 4-3 in a hard-fought second game of a three-game series.
EAHS went to Greenville on Tuesday night and won a nail-biting 3-2 decision in extra innings, setting up a chance for the Eagles to clinch the series and earn the East Region’s berth in next weekend’s state finals with a two-game sweep.
Despite being in the hole, D.H. Conley showed they hadn’t given up and had come to Mebane to play by scoring in the top of the first inning. Lexi Phillips drove a hard grounder past Cameryn Bass at second base that brought home the game’s first run. The visiting Vikings had runners on second and third with one out after Phillips stole second, but Eagles pitcher Kenna Raye Dark coaxed a strikeout and a groundout to get out of trouble.
“I knew they were going to come out of the gate. This team is really, really good - probably the best team we’ve played all year,” Eastern head coach Danny Way said of D.H. Conley’s first inning rally.
Undeterred by D.H. Conley’s spirited start, Eastern responded with three runs of its own in the bottom of the first, as Dark led off with a hard grounder to third for a single. Following a wild pitch, Madelyn Lawson lined a changeup to center field for another base hit.
With runners at the corners, Morgan Lawson dropped a bloop hit into left field, tying the game at 1-1.
Following a popout by Hailey Batista, a wild pitch, and a walk to Makiya Graves, which loaded the bases, Haleigh Palmer ripped a hard shot to shortstop that was booted by D.H. Conley. The error brought home Madelyn Lawson for a 2-1 Eagles lead. With the bases still loaded, Bass grounded into a fielder’s choice, which brought home Eastern’s third run.
The score remained 3-1 in favor of the Eagles until the bottom of the fifth, when Morgan Lawson led off with a hot shot past the D.H. Conley second baseman that bounded all the way to the wall in right field. Lawson’s double set up Hailey Batista, who ripped her own double to right field, bringing around Lawson for what proved to be a critical insurance run for EAHS and a 4-1 advantage heading into the final two innings.
“Oh man, that was really huge,” Way said of Lawson and Batista’s doubles. “We needed more runs than we really got.”
As she’s been doing throughout the season, Dark got stronger as the game went on. After setting the Vikings down in order in the top of the fifth, the freshman phenom struck out the side in the top of the sixth. The Eagles went into the top of the seventh inning still holding a comfortable 4-1 margin.
“She got stronger. She really did. I just kind of turned them loose, her and Hailey tonight. Just let them do their thing. She did a great job for us,” Coach Way said of Dark.
D.H. Conley, however, had one rally left, as a leadoff hit and opposite-field triple brought the Vikings within two runs with only one out.
“I knew what they (D.H. Conley) had coming up in the seventh (inning),” Way said. "We’ve been struggling getting the first batter out. They ripped a couple in the top of the seventh. We knew it was going to be hard, hard, hard.”
With a runner on third and one out, the pro-EAHS crowd onhand let out a collective gasp on a deep fly ball to right field. But Reagan Hartley settled under it near the warning track. The sacrifice fly pulled the Vikings within a run at 4-3. But a few more feet, and the game could have been tied.
Dark focused back in following the deep scare, and a groundout settled the issue. Following the final out, the Eagles swarmed onto the field to celebrate. EAHS parents joined their daughters in hugging and cheering Eastern Alamance’s berth in the state finals.
“It feels really good. We’ve worked hard to get to this point. We’ve really worked hard. The school has - (athletic director) John Kirby and all of the staff,” Way said. “I go back to last year’s team. I put a lot of pressure on last year’s team. I knew we had a couple of pieces missing. I knew we were good, but I put a lot of pressure on them last year. This just kind of leads up to this. The kids from last year - the schedule was just as tough (in 2018) as this year’s team. I think that really helped us.”
“I can’t say enough about travel ball. They play a lot on the weekends. A lot in the fall, in front of a lot of people. They play in front of college coaches. They just play a lot. All of it goes to them. That’s why we’re 23-2. I’m just here,” Way added.
Eastern Alamance now waits to see who it will play in the NCHSAA 3A state softball championships, which are set to begin Friday, May 31. The Eagles’ coaching staff is making its way to Marvin Ridge High School, south of Charlotte, for Friday evening’s decisive Game 3 of the series between Marvin Ridge and Central Cabarrus, which will determine who the Eagles face for the state crown.
“We’re going to take a couple days off,” Way said, indicating that his team will get to enjoy some time away over the Memorial Day weekend before getting back to work next week in preparation for the championship series.