Being a conference champion is the goal of every program, in any sport.
But if Garner softball coach Moe Barbour would have his druthers, he probably would prefer a different seed entering the NCHSAA 4A playoffs. At least as far as second-round games are concerned.
For the third consecutive season Friday, the Trojans hosted a second round-playoff game.
And for the third consecutive season, the Trojans came up on the wrong side of the score, falling 5-1 to Leesville Road, the No. 3 seed from the CAP-8 Conference.
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The culprit that did the dirty work, in part, was timely hitting: the lack of it for the Trojans, which saw their season abruptly end with a 19-3 mark for the champions of the Greater Neuse River Conference.
On the flip side, the Pride (13-4) enjoyed an abundance of timely hits in taking an early 1-0 lead, building that to 3-0 and eventually adding a pair of insurance runs.
But it was not the hitting that Pride coach Leigh Anne Genetti was looking for. What she wanted was pitching and defense - and she got that.
"I feel as far as our pitching goes," Genetti said, "The girls had a plan of coming out and attacking every batter they faced. I told the girls before the game, if we have pitching and we have defense, hitting will take are of itself.”
The pitching wasn't exactly dominating, as starter Avery Morris walked two batters and struck out two while allowing seven hits. But when she needed it, she got the clutch pitch that enticed Trojans batters into much-needed outs to end innings and scoring threats.
So did reliever Meredith Bissette, and both benefitted from the defense Genetti hoped she would receive from her charges.
The defense was led by Laura Zievis. Zievis also delivered the second-inning RBI-single that gave the Pride the 1-0 lead it would never relinquish.
Zievis made her presence felt on the field In the third, when the Pride failed to retire losing pitcher Lauren Marbrey at second on a grounder by Libby Bynum. Failing to get that out, Zievis whirled and threw a strike to Pride catcher Kristen Jones, who applied the tag on Alisha Josie who had broken for home on the play.
Zievis’ throw ended a rally that had seen Garner close within 3-1 after Kelsey Bryan led off with a single and later scored on a Marbrey single.
Zievis made three other sensational plays at short, including one that denied Courtney Barbour extra bases in the fourth inning. But Zievis was not the only defensive star for the Pride. Right fielder Conner Sutherland and left fielder Alex Sohn made spectacular catches to rob Trojans batters of hits
"I think the girls are stepping up in pressure situations now, later in the season," Genetti said. " I think the girls were letting the pressure situations get to them earlier in the season."
Garner had its chances, loading the bases with one out in the second inning before stranding them; leaving two runners on in the third, thanks to Zievis' play; and leaving two on in the fourth.
"They (Pride) didn’t make an error at all tonight," Coach Barbour lamented. "They played great defense."
"I think maybe we had nine or 10 hits, but it doesn't matter how many hits you have. It’s when you get them that counts, and that was the difference in the game tonight."
He lauded the efforts of his team.
"Lauren didn't have a bad game in the circle (six strikeouts and two walks)," Coach Barbour said. "And we didn't throw the ball all over the field. They (Pride) just played better tonight."
The Pride put together a pair of two-out rallies in dropping the Trojans.
The first came in the second inning, when Sutherland drew a two-out walk, and moved to second on a throwing error. Zievis then laced her RBI-single to right for the 1-0 lead.
The second two-out rally came in the seventh as Leesville Road put the game away.
Zievis, who was 2-for-3 at the plate, opened with a single, moving to second on a one-out hit by Erin James, who led all hitters with a 3-for-4 night.
Following a pop out, the Trojans elected to intentionally walk Bissette (2-for-3). The strategy backfired as Sohn sent a two-run single to right.
Josie and Taylor Bissette enjoyed 2-for-3 nights for Garner.
"We're playing well right now, and we're peaking now," Genetti said, "which is what we should be doing right now."