The Apex softball team’s unheralded run through the 4A N.C. High School Athletic Association state playoffs ended on its home field Thursday night.
After earning a walk-off victory in Greenville on Wednesday, fourth-seeded D.H. Conley eliminated the No. 11 Cougars with a 6-2 victory to sweep the best-of-3 series and advance out of the East bracket to face North Davidson in next week’s state championship.
Prior to being pitted with Conley (24-2), Apex (20-6) won four single-elimination playoff games to clinch a berth into the East finals, which included late-inning, road triumphs at Southern Alamance and South Central.
However, the valiance of Apex’s run, didn’t take away from the immediate sting of falling two wins short of a state championship appearance.
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There were some tears after the game and plenty of hugs given to the team’s three seniors. Also, when Apex’s long-time coach Bonnie Hodge was presented with a regional runner-up plaque, only a few of the players were seen applauding.
But when the moment arrived for Hodge to talk about the achievements of this year’s Cougars, she offered some perspective.
“It hurts, but they know what they’ve done” Hodge said. “They are proud of what they did. They stuck together as a team, played as a team, won as a team, lost as a team. This is a great team.”
Junior Kaitlyn Long added, “Everybody counted us out in the beginning … and we wanted it so bad. But for it to all of the sudden be over, it’s hard.”
The Achilles’ heel for Apex on Thursday was its struggle to deliver with runners on base.
In each of the last five innings, Apex stranded at least one runner on base – leaving two on the base paths on three occasions – for a total of nine, collectively, while Conley left just one runner on the base paths all night long.
“That’s been one of our issues all season,” Long said. “We’ve been able to get runners on base, but just haven’t been able to get them in. That’s been a team-wide thing all season.”
Conley third baseman Breanna Hardee, who was the hero in the Vikings’ walk-off hit in Game 1, dug in with the bases loaded in the second inning and laced a two-run single up the middle to open the scoring. Hardee later recorded a triple and finished 2-for-4 at the plate.
The Vikings added to their lead in the third inning on senior Sami Phillips’ RBI single to plate MacKenna Matthijs, who was positioned in scoring position after a wild pitch.
In the bottom half of the frame, Long earned the Cougars’ first hit of the game off of Conley senior pitcher Rachel Weidner – a two-out, RBI single down the right-field line – to trim the deficit to 3-1, but Conley was not going to be denied.
The Vikings supplied two more runs in the sixth inning and another in the seventh, capped by Matthijs’ sacrifice fly, to stretch their lead to 6-1.
True to form, though, the Cougars continued to battle in their last handful of at-bats. Three consecutive singles to open the bottom of the seventh, culminating with senior Cassie Healy’s RBI single to plate Shelby Poliachik, put the tying run in the on-deck circle, but Weidner dialed back in and recorded the final two outs in succession to end the game.
Weidner scattered two runs on eight hits and finished with seven strikeouts, which included the final out of the game. Apex junior Julia Cerasi also went the distance in a losing effort.
The Cougars will lose three impactful seniors from this year’s team – consisting of Bailey Hathaway, Elisa Haire and Healy – but Hodge is convinced the outlook is bright for Apex softball moving forward.
“I think this (playoff run) is going to make us even stronger,” she said. “We’ve got a great base coming back next year.”