Although Eastern Alamance’s softball team may be without star pitcher Kenna Raye Dark and many of the other key players who helped lead the Eagles to state championships in 2019 and 2022, that didn’t give Eagles head coach Danny Way an excuse to schedule lightly this spring.
To the contrary, Eastern loaded up its non-conference slate with some of the top programs in the state, including West Johnston, who took EAHS to the eighth inning in last year’s state playoffs and proved to be the toughest bump in the road to the program’s second state title.
Eastern Alamance also scheduled South Brunswick and Weddington - a pair of schools who were also state playoff teams a year ago - along with perennial state power South Caldwell, who got off to a 4-0 start, as well as local rival Southern Alamance, the 2021 NCHSAA 3A state champions. Then Eastern opens Central Conference play March 17 against one of the teams most capable of dethroning the Eagles this spring atop the league standings in Western Alamance.
Although Eastern slipped to 0-3 with a pair of setbacks to West Johnston, the Eagles regrouped for a pair of triumphs this past weekend over South Brunswick and Weddington, improving the team’s record to 2-3 through the first five games of the season.
In the opener of the two-game set at home in Mebane on the evening of Tuesday, March 7, things simply didn’t go the Eagles’ way. West Johnston broke open a scoreless game with three runs in the fourth inning and then turned the game into a blowout with five fifth inning runs and four sixth inning runs on the way to a 12-0 triumph.
Eastern was held to just two hits in the shutout loss, as Kari Neal and Delani Straughan both reached on singles. Straughan took the loss on the mound for the Eagles, as she allowed eight runs (six earned) on nine hits with four strikeouts and four walks over 4.1 innings. Aryanna Parker pitched the final 1.2 innings for the Eagles, allowing four earned runs on five hits with one walk.
Two days later, Eastern made the return trip to West Johnston for a rematch with the Wildcats. Things were much closer for the Eagles this time around, as they broke out to early 1-0 and 2-1 leads. But West Johnston once again got the bats going, as they scored six runs over a three-inning stretch to take a commanding 7-2 lead into the fifth. EAHS rallied for three runs in the top of the sixth, but the Wildcats added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth on the way to an 8-5 victory.
The Eagles put together a two out rally in the first inning for their first run, as Molly Lawson singled up the middle into center field, and Taylor Byrd followed with a line drive into center field for a double, which brought home Lawson. After West Johnston scored a run to tie the score 1-1 heading into the second inning, the Eagles took a 2-1 lead when Neal connected on a hard grounder to third base that darted into left field for a Wildcats error, bringing around Destiny Carreiro all the way from first base. From there, the Eagles were quiet until the sixth, when West Johnston had built another big lead.
Lawson led off the top of the inning with a walk for the Eagles, and then stole second base. Annalise Thomas drove a double into right field, which brought home Lawson, and after Rebecca Alston doubled to right field and Carreiro walked to load the bases, the Eagles scored two runs on West Johnston passed balls. The Eagles were back in the game, trailing by just two, but they were shut down in order in the top of the seventh to take their frustrating third consecutive setback to start the new season.
Fortunately for the Eagles, things were about to take a positive turn as they returned home to play two more challenging opponents.
South Brunswick carried a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth inning of Friday night’s game, but a dramatic three-run rally by the Eagles led to a 3-2 win - EAHS’s first of the season.
The Cougars broke through for the first run of the game in the top of the third, scoring a run but running itself out of the inning on an assist by Carreiro, who threw out a South Brunswick runner at third base. South Brunswick took a 2-0 lead on a passed ball in the fourth.
With their backs to the wall, and facing totally unprecedented territory for this group of players - a fourth straight loss at the varsity level - the Eagles finally responded, rallying for the inning that brought them into the win column. Byrd got it started with a double into left field, followed by a bunt off the bunt of Alston that the Cougars mishandled on an error, which scored Byrd. The Eagles tried another bunt, and once again caught a break as South Brunswick couldn’t handle McKenzie Blevins’ attempt. Alston scored to tie the game on the play.
Moments later, Katelyn Hill ripped a single up the middle into ceter field, which scored Blevins and led to a large roar by the home crowd. That proved to be all it took for the Eagles, as they held the Cougars without a hit over the final two innings and set them down in order in the top of the seventh to claim a 3-2 victory.
Although EAHS had just four hits off the bats of Carreiro, Lawson, Byrd, and Hill, and struck out ten times over the course of the ball game, they made those hits count in that all-important fifth inning rally. Straughan had a quality start on the mound, allowing just three hits and two earned runs with two walks and two strikeouts over four innings, while Parker added a scoreless three innings with just one hit and one walk allowed with one strikeout to claim the win.
The Eagles engaged in another low-scoring affair the next morning with Weddington, although this time, EAHS jump on top early and held on through some nail-biting final innings for a 2-1 win. EAHS scored runs in the first and third innings for a 2-0 advantage, only to watch Weddington get on the scoreboard with a run in the fourth. But from there, Eastern once again got stellar pitching down the stretch as they won their second straight game.
Eastern got its first run off the bat of Byrd, who drilled a double to deep center field to score Carreiro, who led off for the Eagles with a walk. Lawson gave Eastern a 2-0 lead with a sacrifice fly to center field in the third inning, which plated Carreiro for her second run of the game. Weddington got its lone run on a passed ball, but that was all the EAHS defense and pitching would allow. Straughan went the distance for the Eagles, allowing just three hits and one unearned run with three walks and a strikeout over seven innings. Eastern had just two hits against Weddington hurlers Reece Lindsay and Morgan Nayle, but Carreiro’s two runs made all the difference.
Eastern’s difficult early-season slate continues on Thursday night, as the Eagles host Southern Alamance in Mebane. EAHS was scheduled to host South Caldwell at home on Tuesday night. The Eagles will open conference play in Elon against Western Alamance on Friday night.
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