The Apex softball team was two outs away from claiming Game 1 of its best-of-3 N.C. High School Athletic Association East final with D.H. Conley on Wednesday night.
However, a string of miscues allowed for the host Vikings to tie the game in the seventh inning and set up sophomore Breanna Hardee’s single, which cemented a 2-1, come-from-behind victory for Conley (24-2).
“We’ve got to do better,” Apex (20-5) coach Bonnie Hodge said. “We’ve got to hit more, we’ve got to play defense more and on every ball we’ve got to stay focused. I thought we did a very good job tonight and I think we’ll go out tomorrow and do just as well.”
The loss snaps a 10-game winning streak for the Cougars, who will return home on Thursday night facing elimination in the 4A playoff bracket.
The rally started with a miscommunication on a ground ball to second base, where both Apex first baseman Olivia Chiarolanzio and senior second baseman Cassie Healy went over to collect the ball, but nobody covered the bag in time to put out Conley’s Emily Kirby. In the midst of the confusion on a close call at first base, Kirby noticed nobody manning second base either and advanced another 90 feet with heads-up base running.
On the next at-bat, Healy mishandled a sharply hit ball at second – which allowed Conley to put the winning run on base – then junior pitcher Julia Cesari overthrew Chiarolanzio at first base on a softly-tapped grounder back to the circle after successfully holding the runner at third.
The consecutive errors scored Kirby and positioned the winning run at third base. Two pitches later, Hardee landed a deep single into the grass at right-centerfield to end the game.
“I feel like we really had them,” Healy said. “We’ve just always had trouble coming together and getting three outs.”
Hardee was 2-for-3 at the plate, joining Kirby (2-for-3) and Apex junior Lauren Barrett (2-for-2) as the only players with multiple hits.
Before the seventh inning drama, Wednesday’s series opener was a pitcher’s duel between Cerasi and Conley’s Rachel Weidner.
Cerasi, who has now pitched 163 1/3 innings this season for the Cougars, allowed two runs – both of which were unearned – on six hits and struck out six Vikings. The lone run Apex mustered off of Weidner was also unearned.
Sophomore outfielder Shelby Poliachik pumped a lead-off single in the top of the third inning, then stole second base and was granted third on an errant throw by Conley catcher MacKenna Matthijs, who was trying to catch Poliachik stealing. On the next at-bat, Healy plated Poliachik on an RBI ground out to open the scoring.
After striking out six of the first eight batters she faced, Weidner finished with nine punch outs, while permitting five Cougar hits and allowing the one unearned run.
Game 2 at Apex is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday. The winner of the East final will face either North Davidson or South Caldwell from the West for the 4A state championship next week. North Davidson won Game 1 on the road 6-3.