Triton’s varsity softball team celebrated its Senior Night on Friday by clinching the Tri-County Six 3-A Conference championship and an automatic bid to the state playoffs with a 12-2 win in five innings over visiting conference and Harnett County rival Western Harnett.
The conference title is Triton’s first in softball since 2015. The title has been just out of reach for the Hawks’ senior class until this year, as losses to rival Harnett Central denied Triton their freshman and sophomore years (in 2018, each of those losses was by a single run) and COVID-19 cancelled the majority of their junior season (the Hawks were unbeaten atop the conference when play stopped).
“I knew it was going to be an emotional night because (the seniors) are special to me, all three of them,” Whitman said. “I knew we had to get the emotional stuff over with. But, it was a good win tonight. I’m happy for my seniors. They’ve been after it for four years now. And we did it. This is a good group of girls. They get along. They play good together. They have fun at practice. They’re not grinders at practice, but when they step between the lines, they’re ready to play.”
Western Harnett coach Stephen Hales said inconsistent offense has plagued the Eagles this season.
“That’s been the story of the year,” Hales said. “We put a few runs together in one inning and then the bats just disappear. It’s just been kind of the story of the season. The only thing we can do is just get better at practice and go to Union Pines on Friday and hope to get a win to end the season.”
With a young team this year, Hales said he sees a lot of potential for Western.
“We’ve got a lot of young players and only three graduating seniors,” Hales said. “We’ve got a lot of sophomores. I had a freshman and a sophomore pitching tonight. They did great. We’ve just got to hit the ball. You’ve got to hit the ball and score runs to win the game.”
Senior Gracyn Slaughter pitched the complete game win for the Hawks (8-2, 6-0 TCSC), giving up no earned runs on two hits and one walk, with eight strikeouts.
“Gracyn wanted the ball tonight and pitched lights out,” Whitman said. “She did a great job.”
Junior Tristan Ennis had two hits, one RBI and two runs scored, sophomore Ashley Pope had two hits and one RBI and junior Kimah Warren had a double, four RBIs and two runs scored to lead Triton offensively.
Reagan Bradham had one hit, two RBIs and one run scored. Kaila Cooney had one hit and one run scored. Slaughter had one RBI and two runs scored. Harmony Horne had two runs scored as a courtesy runner for Pope. Gracie Byrd and Aubree Bass scored one run apiece.
Triton was without its leadoff hitter, freshman right fielder Takyra McLean, because of an injury. Whitman was pleased with how his team responded to the resulting lineup changes.
“I had to do some adjustments with T.K. not being there tonight,” Whitman said. “Kimah stepped up tonight and did a great job as leadoff. She’s had a hot bat. Then Noodle (Byrd) steps up and does her job that I asked her to do. And then Marley (Colville) stepped up and played the outfield for me tonight.”
Senior Laniyah Bethea had one hit and one run scored, freshman Grace Andersen had one hit, sophomores Ava Basolt and Maddie Burns had one RBI apiece and senior Oliva Jackson had one run scored for the Eagles (4-6, 3-4).
Prior to the game, Triton honored three seniors: Kaila Cooney, Lana Klein and Gracyn Slaughter. Cooney and Slaughter have been varsity starters all four years at Triton.
“I’m happy for my seniors,” Whitman said. “That’s what it’s about. We’ve been chasing a championship for four years now.”
Western took advantage of some early miscues. Jackson and Bethea each reached on errors in the top of the first. Jackson scored when Basolt reached on an error and Bethea scored when Burns reached on an error.
Triton responded with four runs in the bottom of the inning. Warren was hit by a pitch, Byrd reached on an error on a sacrifice bunt and Cooney had a base hit to load the bases with no outs. Slaughter walked to score Warren, Bradham singled to score Byrd and Cooney and Slaughter scored on a wild pitch.
Triton loaded the bases again in the third when Slaughter and Bradham each reached on fielder’s choices (Slaughter beat the throw to second on Bradham’s) and Bass reached on an error. Ennis and Pope singled to score Slaughter and Bradham, respectively, and Warren cleared the bases with a double that scored Bass, Ennis and Horne, running for Pope.
Ennis and Pope led off the bottom of the fifth with a pair of hits. Ennis and Horne, running for Pope, advanced on a wild pitch, Ennis scored on a ground ball from Warren and Horne scored on a wild pitch to end the game on the 10-run rule.
Western Harnett ends the regular season at conference opponent Union Pines on Friday.
“We don’t have a game Tuesday, so I’m going to give the girls off Monday,” Hales said. “Just kind of let them recoup a little bit and rest some nagging injuries a little bit. We’ve got practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and close out the season with a win, hopefully, on Friday.
Now that Triton has clinched the conference title, with two games left on the schedule, the Hawks’ goal shifts to earning the highest possible seed in the NCHSAA 3-A state playoffs. Triton is at home against conference opponent Union Pines on Tuesday before ending the regular season at conference and county rival Harnett Central on Friday.
“I wanted to do it tonight (win the conference), but we’re not finished,” Whitman said. “I don’t want to have any blemishes. The better our record is, the better seeding we get. But we’re going to take it one game at a time.”