First Posted: 6/6/2009
With one swing of the bat East Surry senior Courtney Simmons silenced any of the Cardinals doubters or critics, capping an improbable four-game run by slamming a solo homerun with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning to propel the Cards to a 1-0 win over North Johnston, earning them a second straight 1A state softball title, their third in five seasons.
East won four consecutive games facing elimination, three coming Saturday, finding just enough room to squeak out wins over Swain (3-0) and North Johnston (2-1, 1-0) to secure the title.
The homerun was effectively Simmons first solid hit of the weekend, but the Cardinals didnt need an abundance of runs over the two-day span, as junior pitcher Hayley Shelton put together an MVP-caliber performance under pressure.
After going the distance in Fridays heartbreaking 1-0 14-inning loss to Swain County, Shelton pitched the equivalent of five games in two days, striking out an impressive 66 batters and giving up just three runs in 39 total innings. Sheltons 66 strikeouts was the third best total in the history of the NCHSAA softball championships.
Coach Derrick Hill said Shelton was fantastic.
She battled, Hill said. I know she is worn out and her arm is about ready to fall off. We struggled after we won the first game against them today on what to do and we finally decided that we had to go with what got us here.
Hayley is a great pitcher, Easts Simmons said after the final game. Shes outstanding and can handle pressure better than anybody. I cant believe she is still standing after pitching five games, especially the first one. Its incredible what she did and how she did it was fantastic.
Hill added he thought senior pitcher Anna Mitchells performance against Jamesville Friday was key to keeping the Cardinals alive. Mitchell struck out 12 to lead the Cards to a 5-0 win to advance to Saturdays games.
One of the biggest things that happened to us all weekend was the game she pitched last night. She deserves the utmost credit for that because she pitched really well, because weve got to win. Thats what I dont think people understand is that she had to win that game and she did.
After falling short of winning back-to-back titles in 2006, the 2009 Cardinals now have placed themselves firmly in the East Surry record books.
Thats the one thing we have never done, Hill said. Weve won three but weve never won two in a row. The thing about our program is that weve been good for an extended period of time. You see a lot of teams that come down here and win two or three in a row and then you dont hear anything out of them again, so winning two in a row is really special.
After being unable to touch Swain pitcher Shelby Parker in Fridays marathon loss, the Cardinals, while not exactly pounding Parker, were able to put runners on base and take advantage of their scoring opportunities on Saturday.
A walk by Easts Amber Merrit to lead off the fifth set up a big inning, which saw the Cardinals score three unearned runs off Swain errors and take the lead for good.
With the memory of Friday nights difficulties at the plate firmly in their heads, the Cardinals finally seemed to break from their offensive slump.
Shelton was fantastic once again, striking out 10 batters to defeat the Lady Devils 3-0 and send her team into the finals against North Johnston.
The intensity level was a little better today, of course it doesnt get much better than 14 innings, Hill said of his teams rematch with Swain County.
We were ready to play last night, we just picked a bad time not to hit it. We manufactured a couple of runs there today in the sixth inning and they helped us out a little bit, too. To me that was the difference in the ball game. We kind of made every play defensively and they didnt. We started putting it in play late and hit it hard and when we did they had trouble with it. Hannah Merrits walk to start off the inning was huge, we get her to second and comes to third on a passed ball and scored on a passed ball. Sometimes youve got to be lucky.
The North Johnston Panthers came into Saturdays second game at 2-0 for the championship tournament after beating Jamesville and Swain County on Friday.
The Cardinals-Panthers matchup began as a pitchers duel, just as Easts two games with Swain.
After proving they could score runs against Jamesville Friday night and Swain on Saturday, the Cards seemed to slip back into an offensive funk.
It was North Johnston that broke the ice, scoring one run in the bottom of the fourth after an East Surry misplay in left field put runners in scoring position.
Another costly error one batter later on an overthrow at first base pushed across North Johnstons run and put East Surry in a tough spot: score or go home
After Cardinal centerfielder Christian Smith made a tough catch at the wall to end the bottom of the sixth inning leaving North Johnston with runners on first and second, East had one more chance to put a run on the board.
East got its chance when Paige Honeycutt blooped a single over the second basemens head and moved to second after two North Johnston players fumbled with the ball.
Honeycutt then slid safely into third on a passed ball, setting up a huge RBI sac fly by Sam Smith, the Cards saving grace at the plate so far during the weekend.
Smith had four hits and knocked in four of the Cardinals 12 runs over the two-day span.
When we played Jamesville I was just ready and really focused, Smith said following the final game. The first game I dont think any of us were out there ready to play. After coming down here last year I really wanted to prove myself this year and hit a lot better.
Neither team had a runner in the eighth inning, but the ninth proved to be Easts lucky one, as Courtney Simmons led off with a bunt, moving from first to third on a North Johnston error.
Smith came up big again, after Christian Smith reached base, Sam Smith blooped another RBI double over the infields head, scoring Simmons and putting the Cards on top for good.
Shelton put down the North Johnston bottom of the ninth and the Cards moved on to their third and final game for the day, a rematch for the state title against the Panthers.
In that final game the theme was no different, as both East and North Johnstons pitchers battled to a draw entering the bottom of the fifth. Thats when Simmons struck, belting the go-ahead homerun deep over the left field fence.
Simmons said after losing the first game, the Cardinals knew they would have to fight to be champions. She said she wouldnt have had it any other way.
Right after that first game we were the underdogs, Simmons said. We came down here with a target on our back and it got even bigger when we lost that first game. It was really nerve racking but I loved every minute of it. It was exhilarating and there is no way I would change it.
Not out of the woods yet, East dodged a bullet with a runner on first in the top of the sixth inning, when a North Johnston player was called out for interference at second base, pulling the Cards out of a jam and putting them just three outs away from perhaps their hardest won title yet.
North Johnston still didnt lay down, as the Panthers put together a ferocious rally, loading the bases with just one out in the top of the seventh.
The tensions was palpable, but again Shelton and her defense came through, and when the Cardinals ace fittingly rung up the final out on her 66th strike out in two days, a collective sigh of relief and shout of joy rang out over the Walnut Creek softball complex.
The Cardinals, who had been one inning away from elimination earlier in the day, had done what few others believed they could by taking home another state crown.
Hill said after defeating North Johnston in the first game he felt the Cardinals were in good position to win.
We liked our chances knowing we were going to be the home team, Hill said. Weve been the visiting team the four other games we played down here. Its phenomenal. Its phenomenal what theyve been able to accomplish this year. I thought if we could score first wed win. I didnt know if one would be enough. We had a chance in the sixth to tack on a couple more and couldnt get a base hit but I felt like if we could tack on two more it was probably over and then they get bases loaded with one out and we are like, OK. But we found a way to get out of it.
Hill said the Cardinals title and the way it was won help to solidify the family atmosphere East Surry softball has come to be know for.
Thats what weve tried to do we dont call it a program we call it family, Hill said. They are all my kids and thats what we try to do to establish that type of relationship with the kids and their families. You see them all out here now celebrating and having a good time and if we had lost they would still be out here celebrating with them. Coach Barry Hall has been a major factor in that. Weve tried our best to instill in them that this is about more than just softball. By the time they become seniors I think they get it. I think we are more proud of that than anything.
Contact Thomas Smith at [email protected] or 719-1920.