BENSON — West Johnston softball manager Warren Singleton saw an opportunity to gamble and it paid off.
With his Wildcats trailing Apex 2-0 in the fourth inning Tuesday and having been quiet at the plate all night, Singleton dialed up a squeeze play. Katelyn McLamb got the bunt down, Kristen Power beat the throw from third and the play sparked the Wildcats to a 5-2 win in the opening round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs.
“We kind of took a little risk trying a squeeze and we got a run in and that opened the door for us,” Singleton said.
The next two batters, Lauren LeClerc and Megan Mills, each knocked in runs with groundouts to put West Johnston on top 3-2. A pair of insurance runs an inning later nailed the door shut.
“Whenever our bats can wake up we can have a good time and we can have fun and that’s what happened,” Singleton said.
The Wildcats had just two baserunners in the first three innings and struck out four times in a row at one point against Apex pitcher Lindsay Hodge. But the fourth inning began with a bunt single, a dropped fly ball and a wild pitch to set up the squeeze play with nobody out. McLamb went on to steal third base – another gamble – to get into position to score on the groundball by Mills for what proved to be the winning run.
“We just kind of lost focus for one inning and just couldn’t bounce back with the bats,” Apex coach Bonnie Hodge said. “We had some slip-ups that cost us some focus out on the field and against a high-level team you can’t be having those slip-ups.”
Mills did her part to keep the Cougars at bay.
The sophomore surrendered just three hits while striking out 12 and was particularly strong in the clutch. In four of the Cougars’ seven at-bats, the final out was made with a runner in scoring position – including a bases-loaded situation in the third when Mills commanded a swinging strikeout.
“She’s a very good pitcher, she kept us off balance like she’s supposed to. She did a good job,” Hodge said.
“She settled into a real good groove the last few innings,” Singleton said. “We had a few errors but we managed to maintain throughout.”
Apex struck early when leadoff batter Alexis Overdiep singled to start the game and scored one batter later on an infield throwing error. Cassie Healy scored later in the inning on a wild pitch and the Cougars had a 2-0 lead with still just one out.
Mills and the Wildcat defense eventually settled in though as Mills struck out four of the next five Cougars and allowed just two hits the rest of the way.
In the West Johnston half of the fifth, McLamb hit a two-out, two-run single to pad the lead and give her three RBIs on the day.
Lindsay Hodge, Overdiep, MacKenzie Brown, Jordan Smith and Kierstyn Drum all played their final games as seniors for Apex, which finished the season 15-4.
“Five seniors that have been out here all four years. They’ve been a huge part of our team,” coach Hodge said.
West Johnston (14-6) moves on to face Heritage on Friday or Saturday night.
“Starting tonight was the beginning of a new season for us,” Singleton said. “I think they’re hungry for it.”