GREENSBORO – For perhaps the first time this season, nervousness permeated the Central Cabarrus softball team.
Early Saturday, the Vikings had managed just two hits in a shutout loss to Eastern Alamance in Game 1 of their best-of-3 series for the 3A state championship, and it was weighing on them.
During lunch at a local barbeque joint between games, some of the Vikings were so concerned about Game 2, scheduled for just a few hours later, that they couldn’t eat – which, they say, is a rarity for this bunch.
“You could feel the pressure,” senior Riley Tucker said. “Everyone was nervous. I was thinking that (Game 2) could be my last game.
“But I kept telling (my teammates), ‘We can’t go out like this. We have to make it to tomorrow.’”
When Game 2 finally arrived Saturday evening, the Vikings looked anything but nervous. Heeding their coach’s advice on how to solve dominating Eastern Alamance pitcher Kenna Raye Dark, the Vikings started the contest as the aggressors and never let up in a 5-1 victory at UNC Greensboro Softball Stadium.
Game 3 is set for Sunday at 1 p.m., with the Vikings having a chance to win the program’s sixth state title and its first in 14 years.
Central Cabarrus got to this point by pounding out 10 hits Saturday evening – the most any team has gotten against Dark this season. The five runs also were the highest total Dark has allowed.
Only a freshman, Dark had a skinny 0.66 ERA entering the weekend, but Central coach Charlie Blackwelder said he saw something different in his players as they took the field for Game 2. And they followed his instructions for handling Dark to perfection.
“They didn’t want this to be their last game – they just didn’t,” Blackwelder said. “We made some adjustments to (Dark). We moved up in the box a little bit to try to take the outside pitch away, because that’s where she was hurting us in the first game. And we hit some hard shots off her.”
All but two of the shots were singles, but they were effective.
Tucker and fellow senior Destiny Thornton both went 3-for-4 with an RBI, while freshman Lacie Coubal was 2-for-3, knocking in a run and stealing two bases.
The trio played key roles in an important first inning for the Vikings to set the tone.
Coubal led off by getting hit by a pitch, and then Tucker, with one out, singled to send Coubal across the plate for Central’s first run of the series. Next up was Thornton, who added a single of her own to plate Tucker, ignite the Central Cabarrus faithful in the packed stadium, and give the Vikings a 2-0 lead after just four batters.
“The first game, I wasn’t doing too hot with (Dark),” Thornton admitted. “She’s a really good pitcher. We were working on some things in the batting cages, and it was just a matter of seeing (the pitch) early and getting our hands around. We have fast hands, me and Riley both, but we had to see it early and hit it as hard as we could so (the Eagles would) have to make a play.
“There was a whole different vibe. We were a whole different team out there, so now we’re all hyped for (Sunday). I’m nervous, but I’m excited for it.”
Offense wasn’t the only thing that factored into the Vikings’ success.
On multiple occasions, Central had to work its way out of tough situations with heads-up defense. And pair of athletic double plays highlighted it all.
In the bottom of the second inning, the Vikings were clinging to a 2-1 lead with a runner at first base and one out. The Eagles tried to execute a hit-and-run, but Central second baseman Jenna Endsley got under Reagan Hartley’s infield popup for the out. After catching the ball, Endsley whipped it out of her glove to first base for the third out, bringing the Viking faithful to its feet.
The next inning, it was Thornton’s turn, and the timing was even more critical.
Facing her second batter after coming on in relief for Tucker with one out in the third, Brantleigh Parrott delivered a pitch to Makiya Graves with the bases loaded. Graves made great contact, sharply hitting a line drive, but Thornton didn’t miss a beat as she snatched the ball and then lunged to touch third base to complete the double play.
“Those were momentum-breakers,” Blackwelder said. “We played great defense. We played championship ball.”
The Vikings added two more runs the fifth inning, when Aniyah Tate (who had walked) and Tucker (who had singled), scored on an error by the catcher after a Thornton base hit.
In the sixth inning, Central added some insurance, thanks to Coubal’s two-out double up the middle and a slick slide by Parrott, who barely avoided the tag at home after initially being caught in a rundown.
“We were a lot more ready for Kenna,” Coubal said. “She’s an amazing pitcher, but we jumped on her.
“We’re ready for (Game 3). You’re expecting them to come and give us everything they’ve got, but we’ve got to come harder.”
The Vikings won their 27th game of the season, against five defeats, and they know win No. 28 would make the best high school season of their lives even more special. But after Saturday evening, their confidence is soaring, and they believe anything is possible.
“I’m so proud of everybody on that field,” said Central shortstop Baily Ruble, who went 1-for-2. “There was a lot of pressure on us. We knew we had to get hits and score, because (the Eagles are) a good-hitting team, and they have good defense. We had to do it.
“It’s honestly insane. I’m so happy and honored to be a part of this group of girls. It’s crazy. It makes me so happy.”
After the Vikings made sure Game 3 would happen, Blackwelder stood in shallow right field with his players surrounding him. He congratulated them on what they’d accomplished after the day started in such disappointing fashion.
It doesn’t get any bigger than Game 3 in a best-of-3 series, he reminded them. And the Central Cabarrus High School Vikings will be front and center in Game 3 Sunday afternoon.
Blackwelder looked particularly at his six seniors.
“I pointed to each one of them and said, ‘Hey, this is going to be your last game of your career. You can’t go any further than where you are right now. Wouldn’t it be awesome to cap your senior year off with a state championship?’” Blackwelder said.
“And those kids, I know they’re going to respond tomorrow. I know they’re going to respond.”
Central Cabarrus 200 021 0 – 5 10 1
E. Alamance 100 000 0 – 1 10 1
Central Cabarrus hits – Riley Tucker (3), Destiny Thornton (3), Lacie Coubal (2), Baily Ruble, Brantleigh Parrott
Central Cabarrus RBIs – Coubal, Tucker, Thornton
Eastern Alamance hits – Kenna Raye Dark (2), Madelyn Lawson (2), Morgan Lawson (2), Haley Batista (2), Kyra Jones, Reagan Hartley
Eastern Alamance RBI – Morgan Lawson
WP: Parrott (3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K)
LP: Dark (7.0 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 7 K)