With a chance to claim the Greater Neuse River Conference championship outright in its final regular season game against Harnett Central Thursday night, West Johnston seemed to be fighting an uphill battle all night long.
Falling behind by four runs on two separate occasions, a seventh inning rally saw the Wildcats climb all the way back to tie the game only to have the Trojans win it in their last at bat, 7-6.
The loss left West Johnston and Garner tied atop the league standings with identical 12-2 marks. Since ties cannot be broken going down the standings — using results against lower finishing teams — for playoff seeding, a drawing was held to determine the No. 1 and 2 playoff seeds. West won that drawing.
Harnett Central’s Logan Ritchie hit a sharp grounder up the middle that West Johnston shortstop Dalton List made a great play to track down and stop from getting to the outfield but List was unable to make the throw, which allowed Tony Steffenilla to race home for the winning run.
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It was a situation that West Johnston coach Joey Worley knew his team had put itself in, but one that they didn’t need to have been in.
“We shouldn’t have been in that situation, we shouldn’t have been in that situation at all,” said Worley. “We ought to have had more runs, if we got more runners on early, if we got some better hitting with guys in scoring position, we’re not even in that situation.”
Already down a run in the second inning, the Wildcats allowed the Trojans to tack on three more runs in the bottom of the frame with two outs thanks to a base hit, two hit batters, a walk, an error and a wild pitch.
To compound matters, through the first five innings, West Johnston stranded six runners on base.
List and Dylan McLamb drove in two runs in the sixth inning but the hosts responded in their half of the inning with a two-run homer from Tyson Messer.
Down 6-2 in the top of the seventh, the Wildcats (16-5 overall, 12-2 GNRC) mounted a bold rally.
West Johnston loaded the bases on a Tony Mack single and a pair of walks. Mack scored from third base on a wild pitch and Mike Blevins followed up with a two-run single to left field.
Down to its last out, List found a hole on the left side of the infield to score Blevins with the tying run.
Steffenilla led off the Trojans’ half of the seventh with a walk and advanced to third base on a stolen base and a passed ball.
A diving catch in right field by Cameron Meyers and a Blevins strikeout of Harnett Central’s Trevor Gerrell put the Wildcats in a position to escape trouble yet again before Ritchie’s walk-off infield single.
“Right now the guys are hurting, I’m hurting,” Worley said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow right now but we are co-champs of the conference and that’s a good thing to take away.
“But, for these guys, that’s not good enough—they wanted to win it outright. We had a shot to win it outright and to control our own destiny and we just didn’t get it done.”
Softball: West Johnston and Clayton (both 12-2 in the conference) tied for second behind conference champion Harnett Central (13-1). The Wildcats’ season sweep of the Comets, however, gives West the No. 2 state playoff seeding.