Garner Cleveland: Sports

Freshman hurler, hot bats carry West Johnston by Clayton

West Johnston freshman Megan Mills held the Comets to one run.
West Johnston freshman Megan Mills held the Comets to one run.

Megan Mills said she was a lot more nervous in the batter’s box Friday night than she was on the mound.

And while the freshman did go 0-for-4 at the plate, that statistic was irrelevant.

As a pitcher she fired a three-hit complete game, striking out 13 against three walks as West Johnston topped county and Greater Neuse River 4A Conference rival Clayton 5-1 in the third round of the state playoffs.

The win advanced the Wildcats (15-4) to a fourth-round game at Scotland County (20-6), while Clayton finished 15-5.

The result came in the rubber match of the season series. West had won 1-0 in 10 innings on April 9 with Mills getting the decision in relief of starter Christina Gower. Clayton got its seniors’ only win over the visiting Wildcats 3-2 on May 3, helping the Comets earn a higher conference finish and home field advantage for Friday’s matchup.

The senior Gower had started the first two meetings for West, but Wildcat coach Warren Singleton opted to go with the freshman for the playoff game.

“I knew they weren’t that familiar with Megan, and she just lifts us up,” Singleton said. “I knew she was capable of getting through the game. We had an easy ‘Plan B’ and that’s why we had Christina at first. They hadn’t beaten us in a few years until they beat us last time, and we didn’t want it to happen again. And Megan was definitely on her game.”

So were the Wildcats’ bats, as they banged out nine hits against Clayton senior Nicole Bond.

Katelyn McLamb went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a steal for the Wildcats, while Rachel Willis doubled and singled with an RBI and Megan Gibbons had three hits including a double.

The Wildcats scored a run in the first as Amber West drew a one-out walk, advanced on a single from Gibbons and scored on a close play at the plate on Willis’ single.

Meanwhile Mills was on fire, striking out the first six batters she faced and retiring the first 11 Comets before back-to-back walks with two out in the fourth.

“Whatever I threw seemed to be working,” Mills said. “I was more nervous when I was at the plate than when I was pitching. Pitching just comes to me naturally.

“I think the first two innings kind of set the tone for the rest of the game. Now I’m just excited and can’t wait for the next round!”

West put the game away with four runs in the fifth, starting with back-to-back doubles from West and Gibbons followed by three straight walks. McLamb had a two-run single to make it 5-0.

Clayton broke the shutout in the sixth, as Mindy North led off with a single and scored on Erin Hollingsworth’s two-out single to left.

“They knew what was coming and they knew what they were going to be facing with Nicole,” Clayton coach Kelli Stephenson said. “We hadn’t seen their pitcher (Mills) as much. We knew they had two good pitchers and we wouldn’t have been surprised to see either one.

“Nicole has been a great leader for us. She has helped build this program to where it is right now and has meant a lot to us. And this was a great season for us. We’re improving every year.”

Bond struck out 13 and allowed five walks in her final high school game.

“It’s a lot easier after you’ve seen somebody over and over again,” said Bond, who will play at Northwestern next season. “They knew what I bring to the table. Mills is a great pitcher for as young as she is. We needed to adjust and we didn’t do that, and we weren’t the best in the field.

“I don’t think we got down on ourselves. I just think after the first couple of innings we saw we’d need to make some changes, and we didn’t make them early enough.”

Gibbons said having Mills ready to go was a big lift for West.

“Having Megan pitch was definitely an advantage for us,” said Gibbons, who is headed for Gardner-Webb in the fall. “They’ve seen Christina so many times, and hadn’t seen Megan that much.

“I’m not surprised we were playing Clayton so late in the tournament. Johnston county softball is just that good.”