FOUR OAKS — For Kayla Allen, as well as her South Johnston teammates, the third time was the charm Friday night.
In her third at-bat for the Trojans in their third-round 3A softball playoff game against Burlington Williams, Allen had saved her best for last.
Having singled in her first two at-bats against the Bulldogs’ Sarah Davis, Allen and the Trojans were looking for something a little extra. That extra turned out to be three extra bases, in an inside-the-park home run that gave the Trojans all the offense they would need.
And when the Trojans’ Anna Webster’s throw from left field beat Davis to the plate for the final out in the top half of the seventh inning, South Johnston celebrated its hard-fought, 1-0 victory.
The triumph sends the Trojans of the Eastern Carolina Conference into a fourth-round meeting with the winner of the third-round matchup against Eastern Alamance. It will be the third-straight Mid-State Conference member South has played in the playoffs.
Allen, who had singled in the first and fourth – only to be stranded on both occasions – was the only batter to have any success against Davis for the Trojans, who otherwise managed only a scratch single to center by Alex Millay in the fifth inning.
But in the sixth, Allen wasn’t willing to settle for a single in what would be her final at-bat of the night. That came to fruition when her blast of a fastball over the middle of the plate sailed just beyond the reach of the Bulldogs’ diving left fielder Sophie Toy and rolled to the fence.
Allen never slowed as she circled the bases, sliding safely home well ahead of the relay throw by third baseman Cassidy Jordan.
“I’ve had multiple inside-the-park-homers,” Allen said, “but never one when the pressure was on. But when I hit the ball, I felt like I had hit out of the park. When I saw I hadn’t, I didn’t stop running.”
Davis, who will play for Presbyterian in 2014, had handcuffed the Trojans by striking out six batters and not surrendering a walk. However, after seeing what Davis had to offer in their first trips to the plate, the Trojans, while unable to get on base, still managed to make contact and gain confidence at the plate.
“She had some movement on the ball, but not much,” Allen said. “I know she is a great pitcher and will be pitching in college, but after we went around the lineup the first time up against her, we began to tee off a little better.”
While Allen packed the punch offensively for the Trojans, it was the defensive gem by Webster that saved the day for the Trojans. With Davis on second following her one-out single to right and a two-out single to center by Jessica Braxton, Trojans coach Mickey Bridgers opted to lift starting pitcher Lauren Higgins in favor of freshman reliever Dina Lee Spell to face the Bulldogs’ Allyson Lee.
Lee greeted Spell with a sharp single to right, but Webster fielded the ball and fired a rocket to Trojan catcher Katlyn Johnson, who blocked the plate and applied the game-ending tag on Davis.
“I thought it was a great play by Anna,” Johnson said. “She made a great throw at the right time.”
Bridgers said normally, he would have brought Spell in to pitch earlier, but Higgins had gradually gotten stronger as the game went along; then with two hits and a scant one-run lead, he had opted to roll the dice.
“Lauren pitched an excellent game,” Bridgers said. “Probably one of the best games of her career. She started slow but got stronger each inning. That’s why we went with her as long as we did.”
Higgins was touched for nine hits by the Bulldogs while striking out five and walking one, but allowed only one Bulldog runner to reach third base. That was in the fifth with two outs. She worked her way out of jams with runners on first and second four times in the contest.
Braxton led the Bulldogs, who saw their season end with a 12-8 mark, with a 3-for-4 effort at the plate; Lee was 2-for-3.
“Tonight, we were able to play errorless defense,” Bridgers said of the Trojans, who improved to 21-6. “We also got solid pitching and some good hitting. We’re real solid and we’re getting better and better.
“As a coach, you hope your team comes prepared to play – and raises their level of play in the playoffs – I think this team has with the way they have responded this year.”