Through all of the success of Princeton in the world of 1A female sports over the past few years, there remained the state championship many thought the Bulldogs were destined four during the run of the Class of 2016— the one awarded in June, softball.
But narrow losses — a two-run loss in the fourth round as freshmen, two one-run losses in the regional championship series a year later and a one-run loss in the third round last spring — had always ended Princeton’s impending reign before it ever began.
All that changed on Saturday, as the Bulldogs won their first state softball championship in school history downing North Stanly 2-1 in the best-of-three N.C. High School Athletic Associaton 1A state championship series.
“It’s amazing. It’s always been our dream to come out here and win one in softball,” said Princeton senior catcher Kelsey Peedin. “It’s just a great senior present to us seniors.”
Yes, seniors Peedin, Taylor Carroll and Hailey Wood went out as winners, but so did so many other important contributors over a busy two days of softball at the Dail Softball Stadium on the campus of N.C. State University.
Game 3, Princeton 3, North Stanly 2: For the first time in the championship series, the team that struck first didn’t prevail.
In the third and deciding game Saturday afternoon, Princeton saved the best for last as Casey Mitchell’s two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning powered the Bulldogs past North Stanly 3-2 to win the 1A softball title for the first time in school history.
Trailing 2-0, the Bulldogs cut the lead in half in the bottom of the fifth inning on a Hailey Wood RBI single before Mitchell came up with the biggest hit of the series one inning later.
After Emily Ricks drew a leadoff walk, Mitchell worked a full count and, on the ninth pitch of the at bat, launched a homerun over the centerfield wall, stunning the Comets.
“Honestly I wasn’t really thinking, I was just getting up there hoping that I would get a hit and I just wanted to bring a win for my team,” said Mitchell, who was named the series MVP. “I’m glad that I could hit a homerun and win it for my team.”
Princeton starting pitcher Hailey Wood made quick work of North Stanly in the top of the seventh, retiring them on five pitches and ending on a groundball to third baseman Ricks who easily threw over to Braswell for the last out of the season.
The Bulldogs ended their season with a 24-3 record, their only losses comning to the defending state champions (North Duplin) and a state finalist (North Stanly).
“It means a lot because the girls have worked hard and did what we set out to do at the beginning of the year,” Princeton coach Terry Braswell said. “We’re short on numbers and they had to dig down and do it all themselves and the girls stepped up and played ball.”
Princeton indeed had to dig down deep as North Stanly took the early lead in the third and decisive game.
North Stanly (25-6) struck first in the top of the fourth inning when Weslyn Almond led off with a double for her first hit of the series. After a groundout advanced Almond to third base, Sam Hogan hit a ball up the middle that scored Almond and saw Hogan just beat the throw to first.
After Princeton’s Wood recorded the second out of the inning, which allowed Hogan to reach second base, Alexa Sells doubled to shallow left field to plate Hogan for the 2-0 lead.
The second game, we played great so we know that when we got down 2-0 that it was nothing for us,” said Princeton senior 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.”
Princeton cut the lead in half in the bottom of the fifth inning. With one out, Megan Bryant singled to left field, stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error from North Stanly catcher Heidi Smith. Three batters later, Hailey Wood came through with a RBI infield single to bring Bryant home.
The Comets almost added to their lead in the top of the sixth when consecutive hits from Keri Faulkner and Sam Hogan led to North Stanly having runners on first and third with two outs.
Alexa Sells hit a hard shot to Princeton third baseman Emily Ricks who first bobbled the ball but then fired over to first just in time to beat Sells denying North Stanly a third run.
Wood ended the game with her second win of the day after the Bulldogs forced a third game with an 8-1 victory in the second game. The Appalachian State signee ended the series with 17 strikeouts versus just three walks in 18 innings of work.
“This is pretty incredible; a dream come true,” Wood said. “I’m glad I got to do it with the girls who I have played ball with since I was four.
“It’s a pretty good feeling.”
Game 2, Princeton 8, North Stanly 1: Princeton picked a good time for its bats to come to life as the Bulldogs forced a Game 3 with an 8-1 win in the second game over North Stanly.
A night after being unable to come through with the timely hit, Princeton delivered time and time again as the Bulldogs totaled 11 hits and chased Comets’ starting pitcher Sam Hogan out of the game after three and 1/3 innings.
After Brianna Myers’ second two-run double of the series gave Princeton the 2-0 in the top of the third inning, Ricks hit a towering homerun over the left field wall in the fourth to firmly grab the momentum for the Bulldogs.
Ricks entered the at bat having gone 0-for-5 in the series with four strikeouts against Hogan and asked Coach Braswell what she was doing wrong.
His response was simple, “Nothing, just smile.”
“I knew I was way out in front of the ball,” Ricks said of her mindset entering that at bat. “Even though I struck out the first time, I knew that I just needed to focus on what I needed to do and do it.
“Before I went up to bat my teammates told me to smile and that even though I struck out four times before that, it didn’t matter because we still had more (softball) to play.”
Once Princeton took the 3-0 lead, the chess match began in anticipation of a third and final game as North Stanly coach Greg Speight pulled his 20-game winner Hogan out of the pitcher’s circle in the fourth inning.
The Bulldogs followed suit with Wood, but only after the Bulldogs added to their lead. Kelsey Peedin and Bryant each added RBI singles in the fourth after Ricks’ solo blast to grab a 5-0 lead for Princeton.
After the Bulldogs posted one more run in the fifth inning when Beth Braswell followed Wood’s double with a double of her own to get a 6-0 lead, Wood’s game in the pitcher’s circle was done as Braswell came in for the last three innings to save Wood for the series clincher.
In four innings of work, Wood allowed just one base hit and walked one batter while striking out three. Going back to the final four innings of her game one loss, Wood will go into game three of the series having retired 23 of the last 25 batters she has faced.
The Comets did manage to get on the scoreboard in the bottom of the sixth inning to draw to within 6-1. Weslyn Almond reached third base when her shot to left field went through the glove of Casey Mitchell. Keri Faulkner brought Almond home one pitch later on a sacrifice fly to center field.
Hogan then doubled before Braswell got a groundout and strikeout to end the inning.
Braswell, Bryant and Wood each had two hits on the game for the Bulldogs. Braswell allowed just the one unearned run in three innings of relief and struck out three batters.
For Terry Braswell, his message to his team entering the third game is as simple as what his advice was to Ricks before her big hit.
“Just play ball, we need to just play our game,” Braswell said.
Bailey Frick, Alexa Sells and Whitney Griffin had the other hits for the Comets.
Game 1, North Stanly 3, Princeton 2: North Stanly jumped out in front early and then hung on for a 3-2 victory over Princeton in Friday’s series opener.
Comets starting pitcher Sam Hogan snuffed out several scoring threats for the Bulldogs, none bigger than in the bottom of the seventh inning.
After Megan Bryant grounded out to start the inning, Princeton managed three consecutive base hits but settled for runners at first and second with two outs after Taylor Carroll was thrown out at third base trying to advance on a Hailey Wood base hit.
Hogan coaxed a weak fly ball from the Bulldogs’ Emily Ricks and Comets second baseman Keri Faulkner made the catch over her shoulder to give North Stanly (25-4) to 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.
In addition to holding Princeton to two runs, Hogan helped her case in the batters box.
She started in the top of the first inning with a two-out double. Heidi Smith and Alexa Sells followed Hogan’s lead with back-to-back RBI singles to give the Uwharrie Athletic Conference champions an early lead.
North Stanly added to that lead in the third with Hogan, once again, leading the charge. The junior shot a ball past Princeton second baseman Brianna Myers that trickled to the wall, allowing Hogan to race to third base.
Heidi Smith picked up her second RBI in as many at bats when she grounded to Beth Braswell at first base, which scored Hogan for a three-run advantage.
Princeton troubled Hogan at the plate the first three innings, only to strand runners in scoring position.
Taylor Carroll’s infield single in the bottom of the first inning was sandwiched in between a pair of walks from Hogan. With two outs and the bases loaded, Hogan ended the threat by striking out Ricks.
Hogan walked a pair of batters in the second before inducing a fly ball to left field for the third out. In the third inning, Hailey Wood doubled to the gap in left centerfield but the Bulldogs failed to capitalize, flying out for the second out and Hogan striking out Ricks again.
Brianna Myers finally broke through for Princeton, cutting the lead to a single run on a two-run double in the fourth inning that scored Casey Mitchell and Karlyn Woodard.
“We just didn’t capitalize when we had people on base,” Coach Braswell said. “We didn’t start out well; we’ve just got make some adjustments.”
Sports editor D. Clay Best contributed.
The 2016 NCHSAA 1A State Softball Champions
Players: Taylor Flowers (No. 2, Fr.), Karlyn Woodard (3, Fr.), Brianna Myers (5, So.), Taylor Carroll (6, Sr.), Megan Bryant (7, So.), Hailey Wood (8, Sr.), Takiria Cummings (9, Fr.), Kortney Edwards (10, Jr.), Casey Mitchell (11, So.), Kelsey Peedin (12, Sr.), Emily Ricks (15, So.), Natalie Smith (16, Jr.), Beth Braswell (19, Jr.)
Coaches: Head Coach Terry Braswell, Assistant Coach Ashley Braswell
Scorekeepers: Robyn Braswell, Carson Braswell
Bat Boy: Daniel Braswell