North Johnston’s young softball team was mostly that for the first half of its season. Then, the Panthers seemed to come into their own and remember who they were: champions.
A five-game winning streak capped North’s regular-season and earned it a share of its 11th consecutive conference championship. The drawing to break the three-way tie for that title wasn’t as kind to the Panthers as they drew a No. 3 seed.
Still, North Johnston went right to work dominating North Lenoir in the first round of the playoffs 11-1 and battled No. 1 seed Elizabeth City Northeastern to the final strike before falling 3-2 in the second round Friday night.
The Panthers finished the season with a 16-6 mark.
“I thought we’d hit the ball a little bit better than we did, but their pitcher (Delanie Winslow) did a nice job,” said North Johnston coach George Daniels. “Tonight, we just couldn’t get a feel on her.”
North did jump out to a 1-0 lead in the first when Kaylynn Batten doubled and later came home on Jamie Johnson’s RBI single.
But the Eagles came right back in the bottom half of the inning with three runs on a rally highlighted by Winslow’s two-run double to right field.
The next five innings were a trade off of minor scoring chances traded back and forth between the two teams. North turned two double plays (including an unassisted one by Johnson) to get out of innings and Northeastern caught two North baserunners in between bases in the fourth inning.
“We had chances,” Daniels said. “The base running mistakes hurt. I thought we could have tied it up once and we didn’t. And we walked a lead off batter that scored. They’re just minor things until you get in a game like this in the playoffs. But I can’t fault our effort.”
North finally got back on the scoreboard in the top of the seventh with a single by Johnson (who was sacrificed to second by X Sherrod and scored on a X Stewart single. An Eagle error put two runners on base with two outs but Winslow got a strikeout to end the game.
Panthers’ sophomore pitcher Emma Turner gave up seven hits, issued two walks and struck out a pair. She had a strike percentage of 63.9 for the game.
“Emma came on (in the middle of the season) and did a super job, took the ball and went with it,” Daniels said. “The bottom of our lineup really came on late in the season and helped us. Whenever we got Libby on base it was almost automatic that she would score.”
The Panthers will graduate only two players: Johnson, a longtime starter and a UNC Pembroke recruit and outfielder Breana Leagin. North also says goodbye to Daniels as coach after a very long and successful run at the helm of the program.