North Johnston’s softball team started the playoffs the same way it ended the last seven weeks of the regular season – with a zero on the scoreboard for the opposing team.
The Panthers (22-0) notched their 16th straight shutout Thursday night, defeating Greene Central 10-0 in five innings in the first round of the state playoffs.
Caroline Turner and Lauren Batten combined on a one-hitter as North Johnston dominated the Greene Central batters from the outset.
Turner, a Catawba recruit, pitched the first three innings to improve to 8-0.
She allowed one base runner on a first-inning walk and struck out four. Batten, a UNC recruit who is 12-0, pitched final two innings – giving up a groundball hit in the fourth to Greene Central senior Olivia Jackson and striking out the final four batters she faced with a fastball that tops 60 mph.
“They are better than anybody we saw this year,” said Greene Central coach Jim Cole, whose team was the No. 4 seed out of the Eastern Plains 2A Conference and finished the season with an 8-10 record. “We’ve seen that they have put up some pretty big numbers this year, and we’re just glad they didn’t put 27 on the board.”
The Panthers, who are ranked No.1 in The News & Observer softball poll and No. 9 in the nation by MaxPreps, banged out 15 hits, scoring runs in four of five innings. With an 8-0 lead going into the bottom of the fifth inning, North Johnston took advantage of three Greene Central errors to score a run and load the bases with none out.
Kaylynn Batten then singled to left field to drive home Lauren Batten with the 10th run, which ended the game under the 10-run mercy rule.
Taylor Adams went 3-for-3 for the Panthers, rapping a single, double and triple. The shutout streak is always there, she said, but the ultimate goal is a state championship. The Panthers made it to the Eastern finals last year but lost the third game of the Eastern championship series in extra innings to rival Wilson Beddingfield, which went on to win the state title.
“We know (the shutout streak) is there and we definitely use it for motivation,” Adams said. “We have our goal set, and we’re not going to let anybody interfere with that.
“We get closer (to a state title) every year. And it hurts every year.”
Veteran coach George Daniels, who has been the Panthers coach since 1985 has reached the state finals twice. But his veteran team, with five seniors, all of who will be playing college softball, has its eye on the ultimate prize this year.
The Panthers took the first step on Thursday. Last year’s tough finish has served as motivation for nearly a year. North Johnston has beaten Beddingfield twice this season, but Daniels knows that he could face the Bruins for a third time if both teams advance that far.
“We’ve talked about it since June of last year,” Daniels said. “(Those two wins over Beddingfield) don’t mean diddly.”
And the shutout streak? That’s nice, Daniels said, but now it’s all about playoff victories.
“We worry about the distractions,” Daniels said. “We talk about it. It’s easy for young people to get distracted. We had two TV stations out here. They heard about the streak and they come out of the woods, you know.
“I think they girls have done a really good job of keeping their focus.”
The Panthers were focused on Thursday, focused enough to put their 16th straight shutout in the books.