PIKEVILLE — At the root of the South Johnston softball team’s success this season is a core group of four talented and, as coach Mickey Bridgers describes them, “special” players.
The impressive collection of seniors – Kayla Allen, Krista Collins, Lauren Higgins and Alexis Massengill – helped the Trojans post their sixth consecutive 20-win season and pushed the Two Rivers Conference champions to the brink of playing for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A championship.
Perhaps, fittingly, it took a special effort by Pikeville Charles B. Aycock to end the magical run of South Johnston as the Golden Falcons rallied for four runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to upend the Trojans 5-4 in the third and deciding game of the eastern regional series.
Cierra Harris capped an improbable turnaround in the Golden Falcons’ final at-bat with the game-winning RBI single that scored Allison Shingleton and sent Aycock to the state championship series to be held at the Walnut Creek Softball Complex in Raleigh.
The Golden Falcons won the 3A state title in 2012.
“It’s one that you hate to lose,” Bridgers said. “C.B. Aycock did what they had to do at the end to win the game. We fought tooth and nail and just could not make it happen.
“You’ve got to close games and we just didn’t close it at the end.”
Mackenzie Wheeler got things started for the Falcons in the seventh with a leadoff walk. It was followed by a Keeley Fulghum single and another walk that loaded the bases with no outs.
Katie Gay, who supplied her squad with a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, doubled to left field to plate two runs to draw the Eastern Carolina champions to within one run..
Another walk followed and starting pitcher Lauren Higgins, who was initially relieved after allowing the first three batters of the inning to reach base, re-entered and promptly retired the next two batters.
After issuing a walk to the state’s all-time leading home run leader Meredith Burroughs, her 12th of the regional series alone, the Golden Falcons (21-3) tied the game as the Trojans attempted to pick off Myleah Jones at third base. As the throw trickled into left field, Jones scurried home to tie the contest.
South Johnston took the lead in the fifth inning when Alexis Massengill delivered when called upon to put down the bunt on a squeeze play to score Anna Webster.
Two batters later, Madison Byrd delivered a huge two-run scoring single up the middle.
The Trojans added an unearned insurance run in the sixth as they inched ever so close to advancing to the state championship series before Aycock’s late game heroics.
“It’s always a battle when we play Aycock,” Bridgers said of the Trojans’ former conference foe when the two teams both resided in the Eastern Carolina Conference. “This was a classic from Game 1 to Game 3.”
South Johnston (23-5) did a great job at holding back the potent Aycock offense thanks to the gutsy pitching of the Two Rivers Conference Pitcher of the Year, Lauren Higgins.
The Golden Falcons entered the series averaging nearly 11 runs a game but were held to 14 runs the entire series.
The loss ends the run of a successful foursome of Trojans.
“The seniors were undefeated as freshmen; they were part of four consecutive 20-win seasons and part of three conference championships and three tournament championships,” said Bridgers. “It’s been a very successful run with four very special human beings.
“They are a very special group – very coachable, great students. All of them are multi-sport athletes and they are just wonderful people. They will be very successful people in our society when they go to college; they’ll be great contributors. I was just blessed to have the opportunity to coach them.”