Some perfectly executed small ball proved to be big for North Johnston’s softball team Tuesday night.
The Panthers scored a seventh-inning run on two bunts and a ground ball to take a 5-1 lead and then held off South Johnston to post a 5-4 victory.
The decisive run started with a bunt single that leadoff batter Olivia Narron dropped down the third-base line and beat out easily. Then Olivia Narron went from first to third when Taylor Narron pushed a bunt in front of home plate. A groundball to shortstop drove the run home.
The Panthers (3-0) would need it.
South Johnston (0-2) came storming back in the bottom of the seventh with three runs. With one out, Caroline Dorman singled to right field and the next batter, McKinley Johnson, was hit by a pitch for the second time in the game. A throwing error on Madison Byrd’s ground ball to third base allowed Dorman to score and Johnson came home on a wild pitch.
Alex Woodall lifted a fly ball deep to right field but North’s Autom Burkens ran it down. Byrd tagged up and trotted home easily to make it 5-4 but that was the end of the rally when Lily Allen grounded out for the final out.
“We tried to make it a little exciting,” North Johnston coach Chris Batten said with a wry grin.
The Panthers got a solid pitching performance from junior Emma Turner, who went the distance and got 16 ground-ball outs.
The North Johnston infield play outstanding defense, particularly shortstop Olivia Narron — who took away several base hits by ranging far to her left and picking up ground balls that were headed toward center field. On one play, the Panthers shortstop dove to catch a ground ball up the middle and threw out the batter from her knees.
“They have a great shortstop, a great infield,” first-year South Johnston coach Amanda Smith said. “You play any other team and I feel like some of those balls (go through the infield). You can’t take anything away from their defense.”
North had eight hits, scoring two runs each in the second and fourth innings to take a 4-0 lead.
South answered in the bottom of the fourth with its first run, getting a single from Allen and an RBI double from Carrisa Womble.
South Johnston (0-2) was coming off a 3-0 loss to Princeton on Monday. While the Trojans came up short, Smith said she saw definite improvement in her team.
“I didn’t feel like we were competing at the plate (against Princeton) like we should even if we hadn’t seen live pitching in a while,” Smith said. “Tonight I just asked them to give me everything you’ve got and compete one pitch at a time and you’ll be surprised.”
South Johnston pitched sophomore Mary Ann Brown, who was on the junior varsity team last season. She started because No. 1 starter Dinalee Spell had a sore back after pitching against Princeton, Smith said.
“I told her this is going to be a test in a nonconference game,” Smith said. “I can say as a sophomore she went out there and did a great job.”
Brown went the distance, giving up just three earned runs.
Dorman had two hits to lead the South Johnston offense, which rapped out seven hits.
South Johnston, a 3A regional finalist a year ago, is learning new roles as it replaces four key players from last year’s squad.
“We lost four leaders,” Smith said. “We are returning a lot of players from last year but it is just stepping into the leadership role. These girls are working on and have already done a great job of filling those roles.”
Olivia Narron had two hits to lead the North Johnston offense.
North Johnston, 16-6 last year with a pair of 2A playoff wins before losing in the third round, is off to a strong start with its three victories over 3A teams.
“Two games last week gave us a chance to get our feet wet,” Batten said. “We hadn’t been on the field (because of the weather), but everybody is in the same boat. We did play much better defensively than we did last week.
“We’re still young. We only have two seniors. We lost two seniors from last year. We are going to grow this year.”