As she meticulously placed the state runner-up plaque into the largest compartment of a backpack, Louisburg athletic director and assistant softball coach Erica Wammock offered one final, small dose of advice while looking toward the Warriors' players, who were still sitting in a fog of disbelief inside the team dugout.
"Don't worry, y'all,'' Wammock shouted toward nobody in particular, but with everyone listening. "We'll be back."
Such was the theme for Louisburg's ahead-of-schedule 2018 softball season, which featured an all-underclassman lineup that came within two victories of what would have been considered a rather improbable state championship.
Instead, the Warriors were swept by Alleghany County in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A best-of-three championship series, held at Dail Softball Field on the campus of N.C. State. Louisburg fell 3-2 in nine innings in Saturday’s Game 2, following a 2-0 loss in Game 1.
The Trojans rallied with a single run in the bottom of the seventh to force extra innings. In the bottom of the ninth, the Warriors fell in the cruelest of fashions as a dropped fly ball sent home the winning run.
"We did not lose because of one play,'' said Louisburg freshman third baseman Abigail Fagan. "It is definitely disheartening to come all this way and then not win. But it gives us motivation to come back next year and be even stronger.''
Trailing 1-0 heading into the top of the fourth stanza, the Warriors broke through for the first time in the entire series as Fagan executed a perfect squeeze bunt for an RBI and Madi Leonard later followed with a sacrifice fly that gave Louisburg (21-6) its initial lead of the finals at 2-1.
That cushion held up until the bottom of the seventh, when Alleghany (23-5) tied the score after Haley Rife led off with a double and eventually scored on a throwing error.
En route to the title series, the Warriors had claimed three single-run victories, including one that went 13 innings before Fagan ended it with a walk-off blast.
But Louisburg's close-call fortune would run out in the ninth after sophomore mound ace Laine Barefoot had retired the first two Trojans in pedestrian foul-out fashion. Rife, who was a nemesis for the Warriors the entire series, then lifted a triple that one-hopped the fence in center-field.
Still, Barefoot appeared to escape the jam when Abby Hawks hit a fly ball that was misplayed in the outfield as Rife sped toward home plate with the winner.
"We had a great season,'' said Louisburg junior shortstop Kaylee Saunders. "At the beginning of the year, we had some new players, so we weren't sure how far we would go. But we got into the playoffs and it was amazing how things changed. We won so many tough games to get here. I think this experience showed us what to expect next time and what we need to do to be champions.''
Alleghany, which won more playoff contests (seven) that its entire regular season in 2017 (five), was paced by freshman pitcher Kenzi Lyall, who was selected as the series MVP.
Game 1: Alleghany wins 3-0
Louisburg was making its first appearance in the softball finals since 1998 when it dropped Game 1 on Friday.
Alleghany freshman pitcher Kenzi Lyall fired a one-hitter while striking out 13 batters.
Barefoot, the Louisburg ace, had allowed just three runs in five games heading into the finale. But the Trojans got to Barefoot with three runs, two of which were unearned, in the top of the third.
Rife drove in a run with a single and Hawks executed a perfect squeeze bunt to bring in another run – and keep the rally going.
Louisburg's best chance came in the bottom of the fourth as the Warriors loaded the bases with one out, but could not cash in.
Barefoot whiffed 11 batters and allowed seven hits, but just one after the third stanza.