They’re off the schneid.
For the first time in a program history, 13th-seeded East Chapel Hill softball won a playoff game, defeating No. 20 seed East Wake 2-1 Wednesday in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs in a low-scoring affair with not much separating the two teams.
The first team from the PAC-6 to win in the postseason since 2012, the Wildcats will face No. 2 seed Heritage in the second round.
“I’m really happy with the way we came out today,” East Chapel Hill coach Joe Simmons said. “Traditionally in big game situations, we hadn’t stood up like we did today. We came out from the very beginning of the game focused.”
East Chapel Hill is still alive thanks to the pitching and quick-thinking of Katie Agatucci.
With her team clinging to a one-run lead in the sixth inning, the Wildcats’ junior ace found herself in a precarious position.
There were no outs, but the Warriors had a runner on third. Despite its struggles with runners in scoring position throughout the afternoon, the odds favored East Wake tying the game.
Then a bunt was laid down, headed toward Agatucci.
There was no time time for her to think. Conventional wisdom called for taking the out at first base, but “88,” a defensive play East Chapel Hill has practiced since her freshman year, popped into Agatucci’s head.
She slyly faked a throw to first base and quickly turned back around, as she caught East Wake freshman Faith Tootle in a rundown between third base and home plate.
“I was aware of what was going on,” Agatucci said. “That just seemed like the right thing to do in the moment.”
In a game where the margin between winning to see another day and losing to end the season was slim, the difference came down to which team made the most of its opportunities at the plate.
Despite recording only two hits against East Wake senior pitcher Madison Swiger, East Chapel Hill used small-ball to eek out enough on offense.
On the basepaths much more often, East Wake had little to show for its seven hits, stranding 11 baserunners.
“Just couldn’t get the timely hit,” East Wake coach Whitney Woolard said. “We’d get a strikeout or pop a bunt up in the air; couldn’t get the ball down. We just didn’t have luck on our side.”
Unlucky or not, the Warriors still had to face Agatucci, who battled out of jams throughout the day.
On four different occasions, East Wake came away empty-handed with two runners in scoring position.
It wasn’t her best of days – she walked four batters and struggled at times to throw strikes on the outside corner– but when Agatucci needed outs, she ultimately got them.
“What’s she’s done this year has been phenomenal,” Simmons said. “In the circle, she’s shown the ability to persist when we needed her to and she made a lot of big pitches today.”
Although several of its normally productive hitters struggled against Swiger – Agatucci, junior Claire Pedersen and junior Grace Vincent were a combined 1-for-9 – East Chapel Hill’s offense opened the scoring in the third inning when freshman Ella Pedersen bunted for a single and eventually made it home on an East Wake throwing error when she stole third base.
Two innings later, East Wake scored its lone run on an inside-the-park home run from junior leadoff hitter Kiesha Little to pull even.
The tie was short-lived, however. In the bottom of the fifth, senior Jenny Suwanmanee put down a sacrifice bunt that freshman Kayla Characklis scored on from second base to put East Chapel Hill back ahead.
“Everybody on this team is good at both hitting and small ball,” Agatucci said. “The other team never knows what we’re going to do because (Simmons) switches it up so much.”
Having already made history with their win Wednesday, the Wildcats will have another chance to do so when they go on the road against Heritage, who went undefeated in the Cap-8.
“As good as we played today, I know that we’re even better,” Simmons said. “So it’s going to be important that we get out and put our best foot forward.”
Despite the loss, East Wake gave the Wildcats a run for their money and might have caught them off guard, according to Woolard.
“I think we might have surprised East Chapel Hill a little bit,” she said. “I think they might have took us for granted.”
Having just completed her first season at the school after seven years at Hunt, Woolard is appreciative of the five seniors on her team who stuck around after the coaching change and bought into her plan for the program.
“I told them ‘look, I’m going to lead this team and I need you to follow right in line behind me,” she said. “That’s what they did.”