What a difference a day makes.
One night after managing just a single hit in a tense, low-scoring pitcher’s duel which the Princeton softball team lost to North Duplin, necessitating a third and deciding game in the 1A Eastern Regional Championship Series, the Bulldogs came out with a little more focus and had a little bit more fun Friday night.
Princeton took the lead in the first inning and senior pitcher Hailey Wood pitched her best game of the series as the top-seeded Bulldogs defeated North Duplin, the defending state champions, 7-0 to advance to the state championship series themselves.
“I just told the girls to go out there and have fun, do what we’ve done all year and enjoy themselves,” Princeton coach Terry Braswell said. “They were relaxed and ready to play ball and it worked offensively and defensively.’
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Offensively, the Bulldogs got the ball rolling early. To lead off the bottom of the first inning, Megan Bryant earned a four-pitch walk, Brianna Myers followed with a bunt single and, after Bryant brazenly tagged and advanced to third base on a fly ball to left field, she was brought home on a sacrifice fly from Wood to go up 1-0.
“We came into the game and we knew that we were scoring in the first inning and that’s what we did,” said Wood, who credited the team’s pregame batting practice as being pivotal to being ready to play out of the gates. “Having scored in the first inning, that just put us into a really good position for the rest of the game.”
That position kept getting better and better as Princeton kept putting the pressure on the Rebels’ ace pitcher, Rylee Pate, who came into the game with a lot of momentum.
Pate had allowed just four hits in 13 innings of work in the series while striking out 18 batters heading into the decisive game three and walked just 11 batters in over 94 innings pitched on the season.
Small ball helped to put a little bit bigger dent in Pate’s armor, however, when in the third inning Kelsey Peedin drew a leadoff walk and the Bulldogs rolled the dice with two consecutive sacrifice bunts to advance Peedin to third base. Taylor Carroll drove home Peedin with a key single to left field for the 2-0 lead.
Megan Bryant then doubled home Peedin in the fifth inning for the 3-0 lead. Pate did not return for the sixth inning, having allowed the three runs on three hits with just two strikeouts versus 4 walks.
Bryant credited the team’s belief in one another in helping to forget the sting from the 2-1 loss the night before when Pate threw 6.2 innings of no-hit ball against a struggling Princeton lineup.
“Even at the end of the game yesterday, I was not worried at all,” said Bryant. “We were down on ourselves; we had gotten off the bus and we were not ready, you could just feel it.
“But our faith is just so strong, in all of us. I just thought (this morning) that our faith is so strong and we’re going to make it.”
With Pate out of the game, the Bulldogs tacked on four more runs in the sixth inning to blow the game wide open. The inning was highlighted by a two-run single from Brianna Myers and another Carroll RBI single.
Meanwhile, Wood remained in complete control all night. The senior struck out 10 batters and didn’t walk a batter in the complete game shutout.
On four different occasions, the Rebels managed to get the leadoff batter aboard safely only to have difficulty in advancing the runner.
In the second inning, a heads-up play from Brianna Myers helped to clear the bases after an error allowed Alyssa Santos to reach first base.
Courtney Brock hit the ball back to Wood who tossed over to Myers, who was covering first base on the play. Myers noticed that Santos had rounded around second base just a step too far and fired over to Taylor Carroll who applied the tag to nab the lead runner.
Myers was responsible for yet another huge double play when fielding a grounder in the top of the fourth. She took the ball in stride and tagged Shaily McCarty, who led off the frame with a single, before throwing over to first to end the threat.
“They got up on us 2-0 and I just thought Princeton played really well,” said North Duplin coach Ricky Edwards. “You’ve got to give Princeton credit. We’re pulling for them and tickled that someone in our conference is going to be playing in the state championship again and we’re hopeful that they can bring it home.”
This is the farthest the Bulldogs have been since 2011 when Princeton advanced to the then final four series which predated the best-of-three championship series which now pits the winner of the Eastern Regional Championship Series against the winner of the Western Regional Championship Series.
“This is a great group of girls right here and they know how to play ball,” said Braswell. “We’ll go see if we can take one more step.”