It was early 20th-century sportswriter Grantland Rice who said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” (Though, tennis star Martina Navratilova once postulated “whoever said that, probably lost.”)
In the case of Hickory Tavern’s quest for a Carrboro Recreation and Parks co-rec softball fall championship last week, a better axiom might have been: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s WHEN you win or lose.”
After having lost to the Dingo squad three times during the regular season, Hickory Tavern chose the perfect time to win – in the championship round.
With their backs to the wall in the double-elimination event, and needing a pair of wins last Tuesday night to reclaim their fall title, the Hickory Tavern squad used consistent scoring and steady play to stay ahead of the Dingos throughout most of the evening, narrowly earning the two needed victories for their fourth straight fall championship and 14th championship overall.
“They’d beat us three times this year, and we hadn’t beat them before we beat them twice tonight,” Hickory Tavern’s team captain Tim Costner said after the victories.
“We did really bad early in the season until we got to the end and we had (Hickory Tavern) two times back-to-back,” the Dingos’ team rep Angela Benoit said. “We spanked them in those games, then we started the tournament and spanked everybody … right up to these games tonight.”
Costner said experience was a key to playing well when it counted most.
“We’ve been out here in the fall for twenty years, and this is our eighteenth year in the finals,” he said, “so we’re used to this. We won last spring, and the fall before that, and the spring before that, and the fall before that. It’s been five in a row: three falls and two springs.”
The Dingos did not play like they were intimidated by Hickory Tavern’s legacy, however. Coming into the final night of play, Hickory Tavern needed to win the first game to earn a second. They scored first and often in both games. The Dingos still managed to keep it close in both, but the eventual champs closed them out 13-11 in the first game and 11-8 in the second.
In game one, Hickory Tavern broke out to a six-run lead after two-and-a-half innings, but the Dingos came roaring back with a five-run third inning. Hickory Tavern added four runs in the fourth inning and never looked back, tallying one extra insurance run in each of the last three frames to stay ahead of a game Dingo squad, who put up five of their own over the last two innings.
Hickory Tavern slugger Brent Norris tallied five hits in the opening contest, including a home run in the seventh inning. Chris Jones chipped in with three hits including a homer of his own in the second inning, and Michael Siderov and Costner also pitched in with three hits apiece. Mat Ellis and Chris Long helped the Dingos with a home run each in the losing effort.
In the nightcap game for the overall championship, Hickory Tavern posted a run in the first inning, but the Dingos fought back with two runs in the second, which would be their only lead over the two games, but it was short-lived. Hickory Tavern touched home plate four times in both the third and fourth innings to put the game virtually out of reach. A feisty three-run Dingos rally in the last inning showed a bit of life, but it was too-little-too-late, and Hickory Tavern took the second game and the trophy 11-8.
Brent Norris chipped in with four hits including two home runs in the third and fourth innings, and Chris Jones also went four-for-four, clearing the fence in the sixth inning. Erin Thompson was also a tough out, reaching base three times.
Mat Ellis homered for the Dingos, Holly Neville had three hits, and Chris Boyce also reached base three times.
With nine hits and three home runs over the two contests, Brent Norris was certainly one of the difference-makers for Hickory Tavern.
I was seeing the ball pretty well,” Norris said.
But the key may truly have been consistent scoring. Hickory Tavern scored in every single inning in the first game and in 12 of 14 innings over the two games.
“Yeah, (steady scoring) really helps,” Norris said. “Having one-two-three innings really chops you down: we really try to prevent that from happening.”
“We got ahead in the games,” Costner said. “We’d gotten ahead in a couple of the other games (we’d lost), but then we’d have a few bad innings. Tonight, maybe we had one bad inning through the two games.”
“We were in a hitting slump early in the season, then we remembered how to hit,” Benoit said of her Dingos, “but then, tonight, we forgot how to hit again.”
“What helps us is that they hit a few pop-ups, and we made the plays,” Costner said. “We made the plays when we had to, and we hit the ball when we had to.”
Costner said it was hard to predict what would be in store for this “winning” Hickory Tavern squad in seasons to come, as it always is from year to year.
“I think we’ll stay the same,” he said, “but I’m not sure how many people are coming back ... and we rotate about every four or five years with different people. We’ve got some people that are younger and get new jobs, and then there are older people who might not have the time anymore.”
“But we’ve been at this for 20 years,” Costner added, smiling, “so we’ll see.”