Seems to reason that the deeper the run a team makes in the postseason, the more pressure and stress that it would have to contend with in order to survive and advance.
For the North Johnston softball team, however, it seems to be finding its comfort zone as the Panthers easily ousted the Eastern Carolina Conference champion South Lenoir 6-2 on Tuesday night to advance to the fourth round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1A playoffs.
Emma Turner tossed a gem for a No. 13-seeded North Johnston squad that seems to be hitting its stride at the right time. The junior allowed just one hit and one earned run in her complete game win, her 12th of the season.
North Johnston coach Chris Batten knew such a performance was on its way from his ace pitcher, but was glad it came when it did against an offensive-minded Blue Devils squad that entered the game on a 14-game win streak.
“We worked a lot over the past two to three weeks to get her confidence back up and get her comfortable again on the mound,” said Batten. “I knew it was coming and it was just a matter of whether it would come at the right time or not.
“Tonight was the night it finally showed that she got comfortable again; she found her groove and did a great job controlling the zone.”
Offensively, the Panthers’ approach was obvious from the start of the game: be aggressive early in the count against South Lenoir pitcher Matti Beyer and apply the pressure on the Blue Devils defense.
From top to bottom, the North Johnston lineup executed the game plan to perfection and put a lot of first pitches into play.
Olivia Narron opened the game off by reaching first on a Blue Devils’ error. Kaylynn Batten followed by lacing a single to left field, which was again misplayed by South Lenoir, allowing Narron to trot home for the 1-0 lead.
Jada Santiago kept applying the heat when she tripled home Batten and the Panthers were off and running.
“We talked a lot about hitting the first pitch to put some pressure on (Beyer) and not allow her to get ahead in the count,” Batten said. “They did a great job of doing what we asked and trying to jump on the first pitch when it was close.”
Batten tacked on a run in the second when she singled home Taylor Narron. Turner helped her own cause in the top of the fifth with a two-run single and then scored from second on a dropped fly ball to shallow right field.
Turner got into trouble just once on the night when she plunked the speedy Campbell University bound Madison Herring to start off the bottom of the first inning. Herring later scored on a groundout.
Turner responded, however, and shut down the Blue Devils (18-3-1) for the rest of the night, save an unearned run in the sixth. Turner struck out four and walked none. South Lenoir’s lone hit was a long single off the bat of Meredith Sanderson.
Batten finished her night 3-for-4 at the plate for North Johnston.
After an uncharacteristically slow start to the season, North Johnston has rounded into shape over the past few weeks.
“We were 5-4 after losing a couple games at the start of the season; that was uncharted territory for us,” recalled Batten. “I felt like they were doubting a little bit. After that, we went 10-2 coming into the playoffs.
“They started getting comfortable in their roles and we’ve been able to reel off some wins.”
The Panthers will travel to take on South Granville, who upset the top East seed Jordan-Matthews, in the fourth round of the NCHSAA playoffs.