Halfway through Wake Forest’s fourth-round state 4A softball playoff game at D.H. Conley, the teams were engaged in a classic pitchers’ duel.
But a couple of infield bounces that went the home team’s way followed by one long fly ball handed the game to the Vikings.
Southpaw Emily Kirby struck out 12 in a four-hit shutout, giving Conley a 6-0 victory that sent the defending state champions to the N.C. High School Athletic Association East Final and ending the Cougars’ season.
The victory improved Conley, which has won state titles in three of the past five seasons with the first two coming at the 3A level, to 26-2 while the Cougars finished 20-7.
“Defensively we made a few miscues, and we struggled early at the plate,” Conley coach Wayne Deans said. “But we fight. They’ve been there before and know how to fight. Coming back to beat West Johnston 2-1 in the third round was a pretty big deal. We’re going in the right direction.”
The teams had played in the regular season each of the past two years, with Conley also winning 6-0 on March 12 in Wake Forest while the Cougars had won 1-0 in Greenville the year before.
The relationship is there because Wake coach Brittany Owens is a Conley alumna who played for Deans on the Vikings’ 2011 state title team.
“Last time we played them they hit through all seven innings,” Owens said. “Tonight Chelsea came out strong and they just found her. They’re a good-hitting team. We were trying to catch it before they did, and they just beat us to the punch. I wasn’t extra emotional because it was Conley. I got extra emotional because it was the fourth round of the playoffs and we’re losing seven seniors.”
Wake Forest was the state 4A runner-up in 2013.
Kirby, a junior who has already committed to play college ball for Liberty, walked nobody in her second shutout of the Cougars this season.
“My rise ball and changeup were both good,” Kirby said. “My defense was solid behind me and we just kept going.”
Chelsea Cunningham pitched the whole way for the Cougars. She retired the first eight batters before the Vikings scratched out a run in the fourth. They then added two in the fifth on Lexi Phillips’ two-out single. And they added three in the sixth, the last two courtesy of ninth-hitting freshman Alexis Phillips’ one-out homer.
“We really exceeded our goals this year and we’re happy we got this far,” said Cunningham, who is headed to play softball for Newberry in the fall. “But this still hurts a lot.”
Leadoff hitter and center fielder Cassidy Dahle, who will be playing at Mars Hill next season, had three of the Cougars’ four hits.
“We wanted to go deeper in the tournament, but making it to the fourth round is a great accomplishment,” Dahle said. “It’s just going to be hard to leave my teammates.”