The West Johnston softball team has gotten used to standout pitcher Megan Mills shutting teams down and the junior was on her game in the opening round of the NCHSAA 4A softball playoffs Wednesday night against Millbrook.
The host Wildcats, however, suddenly found themselves down two runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and needed the bats to respond.
RBI doubles from Nadia Blevins and Rachel Willis tied the game in the bottom of the sixth and Tatum Brummitt then drove in the eventual game-winning run as West Johnston rallied for the 4-2 win to advance to the second round.
Mills was dominant early, striking out eight of the first nine batters she faced and 13 through five innings. Mills went the distance for the victory and allowed just two base hits in securing the win.
Over the course of the first five innings, Mills was often able to get Millbrook batters to chase balls out of the strike zone.
The visiting Wildcats adjusted their approach and began to take more pitches, forcing Mills to throw more pitches over the heart of the plate.
That approach led to Millbrook getting on the scoreboard first in the top of the sixth inning when Catherine Collins recorded the only hard-hit ball off of Mills the entire game with a two-run double that scored Kate Thomas and Devin Williams.
“One thing I told my girls after those first few innings was that we needed to be more patient and make her pitch a little bit more,” Millbrook coach Josh Bunting said. “So we were starting to take some more pitches and then we made sure we were getting better pitch selection. I think that helped out and helped us get two runs.”
Needing to respond and down to its final five outs, West sent in pinch hitter Chloe Brummitt who delivered with an all-important single up the middle that set the table for the top of the Wildcats’ lineup.
“We’ve really been focusing a lot on hitting and being patient,” West Johnston coach Laura Jefferson said. “I think we were nervous and anxious and that made us a little more quick instead of waiting on the ball.
“When Chloe got that hit, it just picked everybody up.”
Nadia Blevins followed with a double to left that scored pinch runner Barrett Wall. Blevins’ speed allowed her to reach third base on a grounder to the left side of the infield and Rachel Willis plated Blevins with a double that was inches from going over the wall for a homerun.
Tatum Brummitt’s ensuing bloop single to centerfield scored Hannah Cooper and Millbrook’s inability to get the ball in allowed Willis to score from second for an insurance run.
Millbrook’s Hailey Shomo slowed down the West Johnston bats for the first five innings before the turbulent sixth. Shomo scattered three hits over the first handful of frames and put the visitors in position to take the late-inning lead.
“Megan Mills is probably one of the best pitchers we’ve seen all season,” Bunting said. “But (Shomo) went toe-to-toe with her and I’m very proud of her. She did a great job with her location and making them hit the ball on the ground to get some easy outs for us.”
Along with Shomo, Millbrook (12-9) will lose senior starters Collins, Lauren Gray and Williams but otherwise will be able to reload for the future with a lot of young talent.
“I’m losing four good seniors but the good thing is I have a lot of young talent coming up,” noted Bunting. “We’re going to be good the next few years so I’m excited about the future of Millbrook softball.
As for West Johnston (14-4), the future is closer at hand as the Wildcats advanced to the second round with the victory.
If West Johnston’s run in the postseason is tied anything at all to its work ethic, Jefferson feels the Wildcats could be around for awhile.
“I won’t have another group of girls like this one,” said Jefferson. “They work so hard. I feel like because of that in itself— they deserve to go as far as they can go.”