For a potential share of the Eastern Plains 2A Conference softball championship, North Johnston turned to … a freshman.
But Amberlyn Pearce was more that up to the task, taking a perfect game into the fifth inning before completing a two-hit shutout as the Panthers beat Washington 2-0 at home on Saturday night to earn a tie for the conference title with Washington and Beddingfield.
And thanks to winning a draw with athletic directors from the three schools on Friday, North Johnson earned the top seed from the conference when the state playoffs start next week.
Panthers coach Chris Batten wasn’t worried about throwing Pearce in a crucial game. He’s learned in his two years as head coach to ease young pitchers early in the season “get nerves out of the way.”
“That way, when we do need them, they’re not thrown into the spotlight quick or have a deer-in-the-headlight look,” Batten said. “She’s had enough experience at this point that I wasn’t worried about her.
“I wasn’t surprised for her to have this kind of game. Was it her best game? It’s as good as she’s thrown.”
Pearce was sharp from the outset for North Johnston (15-7, 8-2), retiring the first 12 Pam Pack batters, four on strikeouts. Meghan Moore led off the fifth with a bunt single to end the no-hit bid, but Pearce wasn’t shaken.
She gave up a solid single in the sixth but struck out opposing pitcher Hailey Harris to end that inning. Pearce then closed out the game with a 1-2-3 seventh.
Was she nervous about starting an important game?
“A little bit,” Pearce said, “but not too bad.”
She was aware of the perfect-game bid in the third inning.
“I tried to not think about it and put it to the side and pitch my way through it,” Pearce said. “(Teammates) did a good job of keeping my head up and keeping me going through the game. It was great, it was so fun.”
She struck out six batters and didn’t walk a single Washington hitter.
“My curveball was working pretty good for me,” Pearce said. “I tried to keep them off-balance, and I had my rise-ball to back me up. It helped me out a lot.”
Harris nearly matched Pearce pitch for pitch – except for the third inning. Taylor Narron and Jada Santiago singled for North Johnston, and with two outs, senior Emma Turner came through with a two-run single to right – Santiago motoring home all the way from first.
That capped a magical night for Turner, who in addition to being one of four seniors honored before the game, came through in a clutch situation on a tough pitch.
“It was almost unrealistic,” Turner said. “I normally don’t hit backside, and to get that hit like that, it’s really big.”
Batten said Turner has a “lot of power” but has been victimized by pitches away. They worked all day Thursday and Friday on keeping her front foot in, and it paid off Saturday.
“She’s worked for four years to try and fix,” Batten said. “At the end of her senior year, she’s bought in even hard to try and stay in. The past two weeks, she’s started staying in on the outside pitches a lot better. She stayed in and drove that one backside.”
North Johnston closed the regular season with six conference victories in a row, including wins over the two teams they ended up being tied with. The Panthers have now won or tied for the conference title in 11 of the past 12 seasons.
“We’ve been working hard all season and trying to come together as a team,” Turner said. “To get this win, it’s really big for us.”