No. 7 Harnett Central scored an upset on the road against No. 2 South Johnston with a 3-2 win in eight innings on a base hit from junior Ashley Bliven that drove in sophomore Savannah Bain in the third round of the NCHSAA 3-A state softball playoffs on Tuesday night.
“We tell them all the time, ‘I don’t care if we’re playing ball all night,’” said Harnett Central coach Ashley Gaines. “‘We’re coming out on top. You’ve got to keep playing hard and do your thing.’ They (Central’s players) are scrappy and they’re going to work hard. We talk all the time about how they have a big fight in them. They’re not going to let you win easily and I think they proved that tonight.”
South Johnston coach Ashley Ennis said Central got hits at the right time and South did not.
“They’ve got a good team,” Ennis said. “(Kacey) Fulcher pitched a good game and kept us off balance. We didn’t string enough hits together and right there toward the end, they did and got some runs in. They got up and we responded and then they responded to that. When you get this far, it’s going to come down to who makes something happen. We put our best foot forward, we played hard and Kennedy (Byrd) pitched great. They just got some timely hits there at a bad time for us and a good time for them.”
Sophomore Kacey Fulcher pitched the complete game win for the visiting Trojans (22-5), giving up one earned run on five hits and one walk, with four strikeouts.
“The biggest thing we tell Kasey is, ‘You control the game on the mound,’” Gaines said. “ ‘You do your job 100 percent, the other eight girls behind you are going to back you up.’ She handles pressure so well. She wants to be the one on the mound throwing those balls and getting strikes and getting wins.”
Senior Kennedy Byrd also went the distance for the homestanding Trojans (21-2), yielding three earned runs on 10 hits, two walks and one hit batter, with six strikeouts.
Bliven had two hits and one RBI to lead Central at the plate.
Mikaela Goss and Ivanna Jones had two hits apiece. Lauren Faulkner had a double, one RBI and one run scored. Fulcher had one hit and one RBI. Evan Blake had one hit and one run scored. Sondra Berry had one hit. Bain scored once.
Bliven’s defensive play at third base was also a major factor in the win for Central.
Her defense all day long helped us win the game,” said Harnett Central assistant Olivia Scarborough. “Our gameplan coming in was we’re going to find them up inside and hope they hit 100 balls to A.B. and Lauren (Faulkner, at shortstop). She had at least 10 balls hit to her tonight.”
Senior Tori James had two hits and one RBI to lead South.
Meagan Worley had one hit and one RBI. Lannah Price had a triple and one run scored. Byrd had one hit and one run scored.
South scored first in the bottom of the third inning when Price tripled and scored when Worley reached on an error.
Central rallied to take the lead in the top of the sixth. Blake singled to lead off the inning and advanced on a Goss sacrifice and a ground ball from Bain. Blake scored on a double from Faulkner, who scored on a base hit from Fulcher.
South tied the game in the bottom of the sixth when Byrd doubled and scored on a base hit from James.
Goss singled to lead off the top of the eighth and Bain was hit by a pitch. South looked like it was on its way to getting out of the jam when Byrd caught a line drive and threw to second before Goss could get back for a double play. But after Fulcher drew a walk, Bain scored on a base hit from Bliven to put Central back in front.
“That has been A.B. the whole season,” Gaines said. “She’s not looking to walk. She’s looking to make contact. And when she makes contact, it’s going to be hard. And she’s fast, so you’re going to have to work hard to get her out. She just goes up there and is so calm, cool and collective. She knows what to do and when you give her the bat and put her in that position, she’s going to take care of business for you.”
Central retired the side in order in the bottom of the eighth to punch its ticket to the fourth round.
“Somebody’s got to lose,” Ennis said. “I just hate it for our girls and our three seniors. And we’re going to miss Hannah (Beasley) and Kennedy (Byrd) and Tori (James). They’ve been a big part of what we’ve been doing for the last four years. They’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. Whoever loses doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. It was just a momentum game. They took the momentum, we got the momentum back and then they took the momentum back. We just didn’t get the hits we needed to answer and come back and keep the thing going.”
Ennis said South still accomplished a great deal in its season, finishing with a 21-2 record, including a perfect 14-0 record in Quad County 3-A Conference play and a trip to the third round of the state playoffs.
“We’ve had a great season,” Ennis said. “We won conference. That’s always your first goal. Then we got rewarded with a good seed and got to play at home. We had a chance, but Harnett Central came in and played well. Congrats to them and good luck to them in the next round. They did a great job of answering and getting the hits when they needed it. But, we don’t have anything to be ashamed of. It was a good softball game.”
Harnett Central travels to No. 3 Cape Fear (23-4), which beat No. 6 Richlands (17-8) 1-0 in nine innings Tuesday, in the fourth round of the playoffs on Friday. Central lost 4-0 at home in a regular season game against the Colts on April 20.
“Keep chipping away one-through-nine in the batter’s box,” Gaines said. “Keep playing outstanding defense in the field. And keep playing Harnett Central softball.”