Using a six-pack of hits to generate a six-pack of sixth-inning runs, South Johnston ended two years of futility against C.B. Aycock Tuesday night and continued its dominance of the Eastern Carolina 3A Conference softball tournament.
Trailing 5-2 entering the top half of their sixth with the Golden Falcons, the Trojans were sure of one thing: the game was long from being over. Both of their previous games this season, and two of their three encounters a year ago had been decided by sixth or seventh inning rallies, all in favor of Aycock.
This time, it was the Trojans turn and they took advantage, rallying for an 8-5 victory and their third ECC tournament title in the past four years.
“I’m very proud of the team, and of the coaches who put us in a position to win,” said South coach Mickey Bridgers. “This means a lot to the girls, having been in the title game for the last four years, and having won three of them.”
The rally started innocently enough in the sixth with the Trojans (18-6) entered the inning trailing 5-2 and looking for anything to ignite the team.
South got that when leadoff batter Dinalee Spell sent what appeared to be another routine grounder to short. This time however, the throw to first as airmailed to the fence behind the bag, and Spell roared into second. What happened next eased the frustration, not only of two late inning defeats this season, but two years of playing second fiddle to the Golden Falcons (13-9).
Suddenly, Falcons’ junior right-hander, Meredith Burroughs, became incredibly vulnerable.
Singles by Alexis Massengill and Katlyn Johnson scored Spell, drawing the Trojans within 5-3, and Krista Collins doubled off of the right-center field fence to drive in Massengill, closing the gap to 5-4.
Kayla Allen’s single to right-center plated Johnson to tie the game, and she and Collins scored moments later on Madison Byrd’s single to left for South’s first lead since the top half of the first at 7-5. Byrd moved to third on an infield hit by Caroline Dorman, and Lauren Higgins’ sacrifice fly ended the scoring for both teams.
Johnson led the Trojans at the plate with a 3-for-4 night, while Allen went 3-for-5. Byrd (2-for-4) and Higgins (2-for-3) had two hits.
“We had been hitting the ball right at them throughout the game,” Bridgers said, “but n the sixth, we were able to find the holes, and Lady Luck was on our side this time.”
And Bridgers wasn’t kidding. With the exception of a fifth-inning homer by Allen, every time the Trojans needed a key hit, the ball found its way straight into the glove of a Falcons’ fielders.
That tone was set on South’s first run of the game, when the Falcons misplayed grounders by Johnson and Collins to open the contest. Johnson scored on a sacrifice fly for a 1-0 lead, but after that until the sixth, the Trojans were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
Aycock fared little better, thanks to a pair of outstanding defensive plays by the Trojans. The first play came in the bottom of the first, after Burroughs had tied the score with a lead off homer to right.
A walk to Abbie Walton and a double by Madison Walton gave Aycock runners on second and third with one out, but Massengill made a catch of a fly to right by Cierra Harris, then threw a strike to Johnson at the plate. Johnson chased Walton back to third where Dorman took the throw and applied the tag for a double play to end the inning.
But the biggest defensive gem came in the bottom of the sixth, with Taylor Bradshaw at second and Burroughs at first for the Falcons, with no one out. Walton lifted a short pop to second baseman Alex Millay just in front of at the fringe of the outfield.
Millay then threw over to Collins at short to retire Walton.
“That was a big defensive momentum switch for us,” Bridgers said. “They had runners of first and second with no one out, and we were able to catch the runner off second. With the tremendous bat of Burroughs on first, I knew we could make another defensive play to get out of the inning.”
Bridgers also commended the play of Spell, who as a freshman, has come in on other occasions to pitch to help the Trojans down the stretch.
Spell took over for Higgins with one out in the fifth to quell a Falcons’ uprising that had answered Allen’s homer and pushed Aycock’s lead to 5-2.
The Falcons had touched Higgins for three runs in the third, with two coming on a two-out single by Jenna Van Horn.
Spell pitched 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief with three strikeouts and a walk.