FUQUAY-VARINA — For the first time since 2000, the Fuquay-Varina softball team is headed to the semifinals of the NCHSAA 4-A softball playoffs.
As good as Apex pitcher Natalie Klemann was Friday, all the Bengals needed was a one-run first inning to secure a 1-0 win.
Klemann was dominant, retiring 15 of the last 16 batters she faced and allowing only three baserunners. But the Cougars ran into their kryptonite in the quarterfinals, falling to Fuquay (20-4) for the third time this season -- the second time by one run.
"We knew that when we were playing them it would be a really good game," Fuquay pitcher Alex Ryan said of Apex (17-7). "It's kind of a relief to be past [them]. It gave us a lot of motivation to have to play them again since our games are always close."
Ryan, a senior, nearly matched Klemann pitch for pitch en route to the win.
Ryan struck out 10, but where Klemann gave up Fuquay's only two hits in the first and got better as the game went along, Ryan hit rough waters in the final two innings.
After allowing only one hit in the first five innings, Ryan gave up two in the sixth before intentionally walking Samantha Slade to load the bases.
But cleanup hitter Melanie Kirchhoff struck out swinging and sent an elated Ryan running to the dugout, where she knocked over catcher Alyssa White in all the jubilation.
"I knew that with her under pressure and everybody else under pressure that she'd probably bite on a ball," Ryan said.
In the seventh, Ryan watched as the tying run reached on an error with one out.
The next batter, Erin Ross, looped a short fly ball to right field, but Apex couldn't take advantage as right fielder Jacqueline Jones threw out pinch runner Elizabeth Margagiotti at second.
Two batters later, third baseman Hannah Wallace fielded a ground ball and fired it over to first for the final out, sending the Bengals crowd into a frenzy.
"Since the sixth inning I've had permanent goose bumps, and I kept telling myself to calm down the whole time," Ryan said. "It's not really real yet, but we're all excited."
Fuquay coach Deb Clarke, who has led her team to the playoffs in every season at the school and won the conference in all but one, said she didn't necessarily expect this year's team to reach such heights.
"We always set high expectations, like a conference championship and getting to the playoffs," Clarke said. "Once we got the conference championship, we just kept going game by game."
Clarke said she and her 2000 team were overwhelmed upon making it to the state semifinals, but she didn't see that happening this year even though the Bengals start four freshmen.
"I don't think that's going to be the case with this team," Clarke said. "I don't know if they're going to get surprised by the awe or being at Walnut Creek or the size of the teams, we're just going to play it."