GREENSBORO – Their journey ended here, 76 miles from home with an opposing pitcher at the top of her game and an oppressive sun glaring down on them.
But the Central Cabarrus Vikings didn’t leave the UNC Greensboro Softball Stadium Sunday afternoon without a fight.
Despite getting just three hits off Eastern Alamance flamethrower Kenna Raye Dark throughout the day, Central Cabarrus battled its way back into the game -- and an extra inning – with its hottest hitter as the winning run at the plate.
But Dark’s seventh strikeout of the game closed out a tough three-game series, and a marvelous season by the Vikings, as Eastern Alamance sweated out a 4-2, eight-inning victory to claim the Class 3A state championship.
The Eagles (25-3) won the best-of-3 series, 2-1, and claimed their first state title. Central Cabarrus (27-6) was on the cusp of a sixth championship, but its bid fell just short after a day of struggles.
Dark had a no-hitter going into the fifth inning, and both the Eagles’ runs through the first seven frames of regulation came as Central Cabarrus committed errors. The normally opportunistic Vikings stranded 12 runners on base.
“The errors hurt, but I think (the Eagles) also made some great defensive plays that were the difference in the game,” Central Cabarrus coach Charlie Blackwelder said. “They made some diving catches that were big.
“Take nothing away from them; they deserve it. Their pitcher did a great job. She kept us at bay for the first part of the game. But we were still right there in it. The kids fought all the way to the end.”
The game went into extra innings tied at 2, thanks to a clutch stand by the Vikings.
Trailing, 2-1, in the bottom of the seventh, Central sophomore Christina Brendle and her sizzling bat stepped into the box. Brendle had smashed a home run to dead center field to break up Dark’s no-hitter to start the fifth inning, and back in the second she hit a shot to center that almost certainly would’ve meant extra bases before Morgan Lawson sprinted and dived to grab it for the out.
With her seventh-inning at-bat, Brendle got another good swing, and this time the ball sailed over a diving Lawson’s head, with the Vikings catcher motoring all the way to third for a triple.
Central Cabarrus was still alive.
“I knew (Dark) was going to throw a strike because she didn’t want to walk me, so I was like, ‘I’ve just got to hit it.’” Brendle said. “That’s all I had to do. It’s just a good thing (Lawson) didn’t get it.
“I knew we could hit (Dark). I knew someone had to start it, so it might as well be me.”
With one out, Baily Ruble came up and laid down a bunt that rolled slowly in the dirt along the third-base line, giving Brendle time to race home before Eastern players were even able to get to the ball and Ruble enough of a jump that her speed got her to first base safely.
Aniyah Tate followed with another sacrifice bunt, pushing Ruble to second as the winning run with two outs, but the threat ended when Jenna Endsley grounded out to the pitcher.
Nonetheless, the Vikings had given themselves a chance, and it was on to extra softball.
“I knew that I had to lay that thing down, so I did what I had to do and put that bat out there,” Ruble said of the squeeze play. “It was honestly a perfect bunt. In my head, I thought, ‘I just tied the game up!’
“I felt like we had another chance at least,” Ruble added, “and we did. And we fought. We fought until the last inning.”
But so did Eastern Alamance.
Eagles freshman Madelyn Lawson led off the top of the eighth with a hard-hit double. Then, her big sister, Morgan Lawson, sent a Brantleigh Parrott pitch over the right-field fence, giving the Eagles a 4-2 lead. The Vikings got out of the inning without further damage, but they faced difficult odds once again.
Parrott led off the bottom of the eighth for Central, and the Viking fans momentarily stood with excitement when she made contact. But Eastern Alamance’s Kyra Jones made a leaping catch along the left-field line for the first out.
Freshman Lacie Coubal was hit by a pitch and jogged to first base, and senior Riley Tucker hit a bloop single into shallow right field that put runners at first and second base, bringing up senior clean-up hitter Destiny Thornton.
“We were down two, and there was one out,” Thornton recalled. “All I was thinking is, ‘I’ve got to get these two runs in somehow.’”
Thornton made Dark work, even hitting sending one of her pitches painfully close to being inside the left-field line for a game-winning base hit. But it was ruled foul, and Thornton ultimately was taken down by an infield popup.
The Vikings were down to their final out of the season, but the good news was that it was Brendle’s turn to bat again.
This time, however, it wasn’t to be, as Dark sent a 1-2 fastball past a looking Brendle, sending the Eagles into a celebratory pile in the infield. Meanwhile, tears began to flood the Vikings’ faces as the reality that their season was over began to set in.
“Honestly, there was a little dent in my heart,” Ruble said. “But I knew we all fought so hard the whole game, and this whole season, to get to this point. We’ve done a whole lot of great things.”
On the list of great accomplishment for the Vikings is the program’s most wins in 14 years and the title of being the South Piedmont 3A Conference’s regular-season and tournament champs for the second consecutive season.
Central lost to Dark and the Eagles in Game 1 of this series Saturday morning by shutout, 3-0, when it managed just two hits. But in Game 2 a few hours later, the Vikings made the adjustment and touched Dark for 10 hits, winning 5-1 to force Sunday’s decisive contest.
They rallied and were in contention to take the state title Sunday, even though they hadn’t played their best softball. And while they felt good about what they’ve done this season, getting so close to their goal is what made the final result so difficult to handle.
“It’s hard to lose in the championship,” senior Lexi Butcher said, her eyes red and swollen from crying. “Everyone would love to be out there, and I’m happy to have been out here with this team.
“Yeah, we lost,” Butcher said, “but we made it this far – with our team. We did that. We went out there, and we did our best, and we almost got it done.”
E. Alamance 000 110 0 2 – 4 7 1
Central Cabarrus 000 010 1 0 – 2 3 2
Eastern Alamance hits – Morgan Lawson (2), Haley Batista (2), Madelyn Lawson, Makiya Graves, Kyra Jones
Eastern Alamance RBIs – Morgan Lawson (2), Hayleigh Palmer
Central Cabarrus hits – Christina Brendle (2), Tucker
Central Cabarrus RBIs – Baily Ruble, Brendle
WP: Kenna Raye Dark (8.0 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 K)
LP: Brantleigh Parrott (8.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K)