Smithfield: Sports

Late-game heroics expose Princeton softball team’s DNA

Princeton’s Hailey Wood (8) winds up during Game 1 of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A softball championship best-of-three series.
Princeton’s Hailey Wood (8) winds up during Game 1 of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A softball championship best-of-three series.

When the Princeton softball team found itself trailing by two runs in the bottom of the fifth inning of the third and deciding game of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A state championship series, there was no reason to panic.

The Bulldogs had been in tight games before and knew late game heroics such as Casey Mitchell’s two-run homer were part of the DNA of the Dawgs.

“The second game, we played great so we know that when we got down 2-0 that it was nothing for us,” said senior shortstop Taylor Carroll. “We knew if we played our game and kept hitting the ball that it would find a gap, or we would make them make mistakes and it would all fall into place.”

That unwavering faith in one another and belief that they could come from behind if needed was born out of being tested along the road to the championship throughout the playoffs.

The 3-2 win over North Stanley to claim the state title was the fourth one-run win Princeton came up with in their postseason run

In the second round, the Bulldogs trailed 2-0 entering the bottom of the seventh inning against East Columbus before a three-run rally, led by run-scoring base hits from Brianna Myers and Taylor Carroll, prolonged Princeton’s season with a 3-2 win.

In the third round, Hailey Wood’s RBI double in the bottom of the sixth inning scored Carroll for more late game fireworks for the Bulldogs.

In the eastern regional series opener against defending state champions North Duplin, Wood was in complete control in a 1-0 victory.

For Coach Terry Braswell, the key to coming from behind and coming through in the clutch was a simple task: “We just had to start up and play our game.”

A truly family affair: Every high school coach will tell you it takes a fully supportive family to truly be successful.

That’s even more so the case with the Princeton softball squad. All five members of the Braswell family played a part in leading the Bulldogs to the championship. In addition to head coach and dad, Terry, daughter Ashley is an assistant coach, mom, Robyn is a scorekeeper, and daughter Carson, a former assistant coach, is helps out as a scorekeeper and statistician as well. Both Carson and Ashley are former Princeton softball players as well.

Then there’s the youngest Braswell, Daniel, the team’s bat boy. He might have left the field Saturday evening as the person most impressed with his championship medal.

“I didn’t know bat boys and coaches won medals!” he exclaimed after picking up his gold medal from N.C. High School Athletic Association Executive Director Que Tucker during the awards presentation.

Wood, defense carried playoff load: When looking back on Princeton’s championship march, it would be difficult to overstate how dominant Wood’s postseason pitching performance was and how vital it was to the Bulldogs’ success.

Wood’s pinpoint accuracy dared hitters to swing the bat and when they did, the result usually worked out in the favor of the blue and gold.

In her nine games started in the playoffs, Wood registered 69 strikeouts versus just 12 walks. In the decisive Game 3, Wood pounded the strike zone and finished with 57 strikes and just 20 balls (a 74 percent strike rate).

Despite the Comets finding some holes early on in the final game of the series to take the 2-0 lead, catcher Kelsey Peedin liked what she was seeing out of her reliable battery mate.

“She came (up) clutch,” said Peedin. “Her pitches starting spinning right, they were just perfect. What we were calling, we agreed on every pitch. It was just great.”

For Wood, there was little need this season to pitch around certain batters or nibble around the corners of the strike zone as a solid defense perhaps is the most overlooked part of the 1A state champions.

“I have a strong defense behind me,” Wood said during the postseason march. “If I do mess up, they always seem to pull me out of it. It’s not just me working, they work with me. We get it done together.”

After North Stanly’s Sam Hogan singled in the first inning of the final game, Peedin threw down to first after one of Wood’s offerings to the plate and picked off the Comets’ standout junior.

Carroll came up with a huge double play to end the fifth inning for North and then made a diving catch on a liner that came her way in the seventh inning.

Sports editor D. Clay Best contributed.