MEBANE — South Johnston’s softball season ended in the fourth round of the state 3A playoffs Tuesday night after an uncharacteristic flurry of walks derailed the Trojans in a 10-6 loss at Eastern Alamance.
Trojans pitchers combined to walk 10 Eastern Alamance batters in the game, including six in a six-run fourth inning that proved to be the turning point for the Eagles.
Eastern Alamance (24-4), which set a school record with its 24th victory, advanced to a best-of-three Eastern final against Greenville D.H. Conley. South Johnston, the Eastern Carolina 3A Conference champion, finished 21-7 as it posted its fifth straight 20-win season.
“You just can’t win playoff games with eight to 10 walks and wild pitches,” South Johnston coach Mickey Bridgers said. “Tonight, we just didn’t make plays good enough to have a team win. We just didn’t execute, and we gave them too many opportunities to score.
“We’re a better team than what we showed tonight. We just didn’t play a game worthy of winning a fourth-round state playoff game.”
Down 1-0 after a home run to straightaway center field by Eastern Alamance’s Mandi Ballard in the first inning, South Johnston bunched together six hits over the second and third innings to take a 3-1 lead.
In the second inning, the Trojans had four hits. Lauren Higgins rapped an RBI double and Alexis Massengill drove in a run with a two-out single to give South Johnston a 2-1 lead. In the third, Kayla Allen (2-for-4) led off with a double and scored from third on a one-out groundout.
Then came the disastrous fourth inning.
Eastern’s Ballard started the bottom of the fourth with a walk, and it snowballed from there. Higgins was replaced by freshman Dinalee Spell with the bases loaded and four runs already across the plate in the inning. Spell walked consecutive batters to force in two more runs and when the dust had settled Eastern Alamance had a 7-3 lead.
The home plate umpire had a consistently tight strike zone for both teams, but it seemed to bother South Johnston’s pitchers more than Eastern Alamance left-hander Gracyn Allen-Ingle, who went the distance for the victory.
“He had a really, really tight zone,” Eastern Alamance coach Danny Way said. “We had to throw it across the plate. They have really good hitters, and they hit it. But our pitcher can put it about anywhere, and she adjusted really well.”
South Johnston scored a pair of runs in the sixth to cut the deficit to 7-5. Eastern Alamance responded with three runs in the bottom of the inning to go back up 10-5. The Trojans scored a run in the seventh for the final margin.
Higgins, Allen and Caroline Dorman had two hits each for South Johnston, which outhit Eastern Alamance 10-7. But the walks proved to be the Trojans’ undoing.
“If the umpire is a little different than what you are used to, you have to be able to adjust,” Bridgers said. “We had a hard time making any kind of adjustments. The consistency was not there to win tonight. We never got into the flow and rhythm.”
South Johnston had just two seniors this season – four-year starter Katlyn Johnson and Alex Millay.
“We’ve had a great year,” Bridgers said. “We expect to win. We work hard to win. Tonight we just did not work hard enough and execute well enough to win. Hopefully, we’ll learn from this and be a better team next year.”
For Johnson, teary-eyed after her final softball game, it was a hard way to go out.
“In (softball), when things start to happen, you can’t collapse,” Johnson said. “That is pretty much what happened. It’s not one person’s fault. We all made mental errors. We could have beaten this team, but you just can’t let it get in your head when they get some hits.”
Johnson was able to look at her four years as a whole and muster a smile. Four 20-win seasons as a starter was a run to remember. “That is something to be proud of,” she said. “I know it is really said now, but one day I’ll have kids maybe and I will be able to tell them about it. It’s something I will always cherish.”