Sometimes, the best plays are the ones that never happen – as evidenced by the important at-bat of North Johnston’s Jada Santiago during Tuesday’s softball playoff contest against Bunn.
With her team trailing by three runs with two runners on base in the bottom of the sixth stanza, Santiago attempted a bunt that was fouled down the third-base line. On the next pitch, Santiago eschewed the small-ball strategy and instead ripped a towering home run to left-center to tie the score.
One inning later, North Johnston’s Hannah Wall poked a single to left to bring home teammate Blayke Batten with the walk-off winner as the Panthers advanced with a 6-5 triumph over the pesky Wildcats in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s 2A playoffs at George Daniels Field on the North Johnston campus.
The Panthers, now 20-5 overall, are one victory away from their first Final Four appearance in coach Chris Batten’s three seasons in charge of the tradition-rich program.
But that quest won’t be an easy one as North Johnston will face a stiff challenge in Friday’s fourth round as Batten’s club will travel to Creedmoor to tangle with two-time defending state champion South Granville – the same squad that eliminated the Panthers in the fourth round in 2015.
“My goal is to get every (graduating) class here to at least one Final Four during their careers here,” said Batten, who also serves as North Johnston’s boys basketball skipper. “I know you can’t always do it, though. You have to be both lucky and good.”
The Panthers were a little bit of both Tuesday as they were able to rally from a three-run deficit after Bunn (18-3) starting pitcher Caroline White, only a freshman, smacked a grand slam in the top of the third frame to give the Wildcats a 5-2 advantage.
White, who had tossed shutouts in each of the first two playoff rounds, was cruising until the bottom of the sixth, when North Johnston’s Wall reached on a misplayed fly ball to begin the inning. Lindsey Massengill followed with a single to set the stage for Santiago, a junior cleanup hitter with nine longballs this spring.
Needless to say, Santiago was a bit surprised when Batten flashed the bunt sign from his third-base coach’s box.
“I am the worst bunter ever, so it was kind of nerve-wracking,” Santiago said.
Said Batten: “(Bunn) had their (corner infielders) playing back, so we thought we could catch them sleeping and get a bunt down to load the bases, or maybe they would even have an overthrow at one of the bags.”
In what would prove to be a blessing in disguise, Santiago awkwardly bunted the ball foul, so Batten went back to the swing away sign – a challenge Santiago was more than happy to accept.
“I got a high and outside pitch that I knew I could drive long and far to score some runs,” Santiago said. “I just wanted to do something to help my team.”
With the score suddenly even at 5-5, Bunn went down in order in the top of the seventh to set up Wall’s game-winner in the bottom of the stanza.
North Johnston and Bunn are long-time rivals from the Capital Area and Northern Carolina Conferences going back to the advent of fast-pitch softball in North Carolina in the mid-1990s.
But after splitting to different leagues in 2013, the clubs haven’t played since – until Tuesday’s thriller in front of an overflow crowd.
It was tough way to end the season for Bunn, which had dropped just two contests to South Granville coming in, despite boasting an all-freshman battery in White and catcher Liz Parrish. The Wildcats had just two seniors on their roster – University of Mount Olive signee Alli Davis at third base and Mary Elizabeth Stevenson in left field.
“I was very happy with our freshman pitcher-catcher duo this season,” said Bunn coach Melanie Lovin. “They really stepped up this year, and I am very proud of them. Everybody came through this year to fill some of the spots on our team that needed to be filled. We were a very good team that played hard.”
North Johnston Baseball Falls To Randleman
Less than 30 yards away from the softball field, North Johnston’s baseball team was looking to provide a dual-sport sweep for the school, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead, the Panthers allowed five unearned runs and were knocked out of the 2A playoffs by a 5-1 margin against the Randleman Tigers.
“The moral of this game was that (Randleman) capitalized on our mistakes,” said North Johnston nine-year head coach Brian Ford. “That’s just the bottom line. When you have two evenly-matched teams, the team that makes the least amount of errors in going to win the game.”
The Panthers (21-4) made three errors for the contest, and they all seemed to come at the most inopportune times.
Randleman, which improved to 23-6, led 2-1 before pulling away with a trio of unearned runs in the top of the sixth stanza of action. The Tigers will now take on two-time defending East region champ South Granville in the fourth round on the road in Creedmoor.
Dylan Radford, one of eight seniors on the Panthers’ roster, pitched well for his squad but didn’t get much help from his teammates on defense.
“We pride ourselves on great pitching and defense,” Ford said. “Our defense let us down.”
Despite the loss, North Johnston still enjoyed a successful campaign that featured its third consecutive Eastern Plains Conference regular season crown. The Panthers then edged Clinton (4-2) and East Bladen (9-8) in the playoffs before running into Randleman.
“I thought the year went really well,” Ford said. “We knew we would have to rely on our pitching, and that’s what we did. But we also swung the bat a lot better than I thought.”
In order to secure a four-peat in what will be a newfangled EPC, the Panthers will have to reload on the fly after losing a strong senior class that includes the likes of Radford, Steven Worley, Logan Hayes and Garrett Littleton.
Of North Johnston’s 21 victories this spring, 20 were secured on the mound by seniors, including nine from Radford alone.
“We are going to be really young next year,” Ford said. “But I like the energy our young kids have. You can’t teach that. I am excited about next year’s team.”
Washington will be leaving the EPC during realignment, while Nash Central will be coming down from the Big East 3A Conference.