FOUR OAKS — The South Johnston softball team knew it faced a strong opponent in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs, Eastern Alamance. The Eagles derailed a promising Trojan season last year in the playoffs.
All the more reason for South Johnston to play to its strengths when the two squads hooked up again, this time in the third round of the state tournament and this time on the Trojans’ turf.
South Johnston relied on defense, pitching and speed to oust the Eagles 7-4 and, in so doing, advanced to the fourth round yet again.
Lauren Higgins secured the complete game victory when she struck out the Eagles’ Graycn Allen-Ingle, who represented the potential tying run, in the top of the seventh inning.
Higgins struck out six batters on the night and issued no free passes to aid the Eastern Alamance attack, as had been the case in the meeting between the two teams in the fourth round of the tournament a year ago.
To go along with Higgins’ control in the circle, the Trojan defense handled most everything hit to them, having just one error come back to haunt them.
“Pitching and defense have been our recipe for success this year,” said South Johnston coach Mickey Bridgers, pointing to the importance of not issuing any walks or having costly errors. “It’s huge against any team but when you’re in the playoffs in the third round against a good hitting team like Eastern Alamance, it’s a major part of the game.”
With the Eagles’ offense being grounded to start the game, the Trojans put together some two-out magic in the bottom of the third inning to stake themselves to a big, early lead.
After McKinley Johnson legged out a bunt single, Allen-Ingle retired the next two South Johnston batters. However, four consecutive two-out singles later partnered with three Eastern Alamance errors, the Trojans found themselves with a 5-0 lead.
Kayla Allen and Madison Byrd each came through with RBI singles while Caroline Dorman drove in two runs with her single up the middle. An error would subsequently allow Dorman to score for the 5-0 lead.
“We just had to come out here and jump on them early, gets hits and score,” Dorman said. “It feels amazing because last year they beat us in the fourth round.
“This year, it feels good.”
Dorman plated another run in the fifth inning with a RBI single and Allen came through with a grounder to the right side of the infield to score Johnson for some late insurance.
During the big inning, the Trojan baserunners often tested the Eagles’ outfielders and took an extra base.
“They did not seem to be strong-armed in the outfield, occasionally they threw to the wrong bases and speed is kind of one of the things that is our strength,” Bridgers said. “We hit the ball good but we don’t really hit it with a lot of power but we try to make up for the lack of power with team speed.”
Eastern Alamance struck back for three runs in the top of the fifth inning with Milayn Dark’s two-run double highlighting the frame for the Eagles.
Higgins and company dodged more damage perhaps when a heads-up double play eliminated the lead runner who otherwise would have been at third base with just one out.
Then in the top of the seventh inning, Eastern Alamance drew to within three runs on an Alyssa Dean RBI double. With two runners in scoring position and facing the Eagles’ main power hitter, Allen-Ingle, Higgins sealed the deal with her sixth strikeout of the evening.
Kayla Allen went 3-of-3 at the plate for the Trojans with a pair of RBIs while Caroline Dorman drove in three runs in total. Byrd and Johnson also collected two hits each as the Trojans exploded for 11 hits.
“When you’re in the playoffs, you don’t get a second chance when it’s single-elimination so you have to be on your game,” Bridgers said. “We’re playing really well and executing and full of team spirit.
“(It was) a great game, great effort and a feeling of redemption from last year.”
South Johnston will host Cleveland, fellow Two Rivers Conference Co-Champion, in the fourth round. It will be their fourth meeting this year and South has won two of the three.