Both Triton and South Johnston found themselves down at home in the first round of the NCHSAA 3A state playoffs on Tuesday. Both teams fought hard to mount a comeback. And both teams came up just a little short.
Triton (13-7) couldn’t quite get to the power in its lineup in the final inning, falling to Western Alamance 9-6. South Johnston (12-7) had exactly who it wanted at the plate, but a great catch in left-center field turned a walk-off double into the final out in a 2-1 loss to Clayton.
“I knew [Western Alamance] were better than their record (10-8) says,” said Triton softball coach Mark Whitman. “They went to the final four last year and only lost two players from that team, and Cleveland beat them to make it to the state championship, so I knew they were good. We could have laid down and quit tonight, but they fought every single inning tonight. I’m proud of them, this was the most enthusiastic they’ve been all year. Everybody came through at some point tonight, it just wasn’t enough.”
“It was a well-played game by both teams,” said South Johnston coach Ashley Ennis. “[Clayton] got a couple of key hits in some key situations, and that was the difference. I thought Kennedy [Byrd] pitched a great game, a lot of the hits they did get off of her were kind of fisted off. They got one more run than we did, and I can’t think of any way I’d rather go out than with Number 11 [Carmen Keene] up there to bat with a chance to win it. I’ll take that every day.”
The Hawks constantly found themselves behind the eight-ball against the Warriors. Western Alamance scored two in the top of the first on a two-run homer by Cassidy Coleman. The Hawks did get one back in the bottom half on an RBI single by sophomore Gracyn Slaughter, but could have had two had it not been for a runners’ interference call earlier in the frame. After the Warriors tacked on another in the top of the second, freshman Reagan Bradham ripped a double to lead off but injured herself while tripping over second base. That put the Hawks in a compromising position in the field, with Slaughter moving out of position to second and senior Mikaylee Flowers coming off the bench to play in left after being out for several days.
Still, Triton battled back. The Hawks tied the game in the third after senior Alexis Howard doubled and scored on a ground ball to second that was misplayed. Flowers later drove in sophomore Kaila Cooney on a grounder to first to make it 3-3.
But Western Alamance hit back harder, scoring two in the fourth and two in the fifth to take a commanding 7-3 lead. It would’ve been easy for Triton to roll over at that point. But that’s not what happened. They scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth, thanks to a two-run dinger by junior Brittany Ireland and an RBI single by senior Ella Layn to score Flowers, making it a one-run ballgame at 7-6.
But Western Alamance got the last punch in. The Warriors scored two on a two-out single through the right side, giving them a three-run cushion heading into the final frame and the bottom of Triton’s lineup up to bat.
With two outs, it looked all but over as junior No. 9 hitter Mary Kate Lucas hit a grounder to second. But the throw to first pulled the first baseman off the bag, leaving the window open. That brought senior leadoff hitter Tatiana Muniz up and Howard, Cooney and Ireland behind her (the three combined for 12 home runs this season). But Muniz came up just a half-step shy of beating out an infield single, ending the Hawks’ season.
After the game, Whitman had a long talk with his team. And after that, he took a moment to embrace his four seniors: Alexis Howard, Tatiana Muniz, Ella Layn and Mikaylee Flowers.
“They’re just four special ones,” Whitman said. “They’re always going to be four of my favorites. They’re coachable, great kids. They come from great families, do what you ask them to — they’re just great kids, and all four of them are going to be successful in life.”
The Trojans found themselves going up against a familiar opponent in Johnston County and Greater Neuse Conference rival Clayton. South walloped the Comets 11-1 on the road in their first meeting and fell 4-2 at home back in April. And game three proved to be the best between both teams.
South took the early lead in the second inning. Senior catcher Emma Jernigan led off with a single and Nikki Lee walked, and Katie Mitchell drove in courtesy runner Hannah Beasley to make it 1-0.
Clayton responded in the top of the third, tying it up on an RBI single by Jayden Kapusta. The game remained tied up until the top of the seventh, when Kapusta again drove in a run with a base hit to make it 2-1.
No. 9 hitter Kyndall Woodard led off the bottom of the seventh with a one-out single. And with two outs and two strikes, senior Kandis Adams fouled off a plethora of pitches, before finally getting the one she wanted, and crushed it into left-center for a double to put runners on second and third for senior Carmen Keene. South fans erupted with cheers as she hammered the ball into left-center field. At first it looked like it was leaving the yard, then like it might hit off the fence. But Clayton center fielder Kenzi Bossman was able to track it down on the run for the final out, sealing the 2-1 loss for South.
Ennis also held a long talk with his team, and for one last time embraced his four seniors: Carmen Keene, Kandis Adams, Emma Jernigan and Logan Blackmon.
“You’ve got four girls who are the heart and soul of what we’ve been doing the last four years,” Ennis said. “Some of them were on varsity as a freshman and won the conference championship. To win a share of it as seniors, it’s just another phenomenal feat to show how good they are. We hate that Logan was hurt and couldn’t play this year, but she’s been just as much a part of this team as anyone else. And Carmen, Kandis and Emma, they all did a great job of stepping up and being what you want your leaders to be. They’ll be missed, and they’ll be hard to replace.”