After blitzing through each of its first three playoff opponents, South Caldwell has just one more obstacle standing in the way of a second consecutive trip to the state championship.
Coach Casey Justice and his Spartans have once again reached the NCHSAA 4A West Region final, where they will face Mooresville in a best-of-three series beginning Tuesday night. It’s a matchup that’s sure to produce plenty of excitement, much like the two teams did a year ago.
In that fourth-round state playoff game, neither Mooresville pitcher Joelle Davis nor her South Caldwell counterpart, Anna King, allowed any runs through the first six innings. The Blue Devils finally broke through with a run in the top of the seventh, but the Spartans’ Graclyn Green provided the heroic two-run, walk-off home run to extend her team’s season.
“Last year the pitcher killed us,” said Justice, now in his sixth season as the Spartans’ coach. “She’s gone but I’ve heard they’ve got two other ones that are good though.”
Holding down the pitcher’s circle this season for the third-seeded Blue Devils (26-3) have been juniors Kali Morton and Aubrey Tuell. Morton has shouldered most of the load, throwing 114.2 innings with 145 strikeouts and a 14-1 record. Both her and Tuell have sub-2.00 ERAs as well.
No. 5 South Caldwell (21-3) will counter with its dynamic duo of King and senior Jenna Pittman. King, who threw a no-hitter against Jack Britt in the state title series as a sophomore, has been limited to nine appearances this year but has 53 strikeouts in a little more than 30 innings of work. Meanwhile, Pittman – a career 45-game winner in a Spartan jersey – is 15-1 and has struck out an even 100 in just over 95 innings. Like Mooresville’s two pitchers, King and Pittman both carry ERAs under 2.00.
The challenge for any of the pitchers in this series, however, will be trying to cool off some of the hottest bats in the state.
“At the plate, I don’t think they hit a lot of home runs except for the shortstop,” Justice said.
That shortstop, freshman Ellie Goins, leads Mooresville with 10 home runs. She’s also the team leader in batting average (.467), runs (36) and RBIs (31).
Junior second baseman Hailey Lane doesn’t trail too far behind Goins, posting a .464 batting average this year. She’s also slugged nine doubles and seven triples while scoring 31 times.
“The Hailey Lane kid is good,” Justice emphasized. “She can run, she can do it all.”
Their offensive prowess is a large reason the Blue Devils have won 21 in a row coming into the regional final. But the Spartans, winners of 11 straight in their own right, certainly have some sluggers too.
When it comes to the long bomb, no softball player in the state has more than Regan Weisner. The sophomore second baseman has hit 15 of them this year to pair with a ridiculous .557 batting average and 50 RBIs.
Hitting cleanup behind Weisner is sophomore catcher Ciara Hanson, who is sporting a .448 batting average and has driven in 19 runs. And completing South Caldwell’s deadly 3-4-5 spots in the lineup is Addison Blair. The sophomore outfielder is hitting .403 with six home runs, 30 runs and 27 RBIs. But she’s been especially dominant over her past four games, going 8-for-12 with four homers and 12 RBIs.
“Blair has been huge for us lately,” Justice said. “She has her confidence back.”
Confidence is at an all-time high for these peaking Spartans. All season long, they’ve broken their post-game huddle with a simple chant to remind them of their goal: “1-2-3-Championship!” Now they’re just two wins away from achieving it.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Both squads began the postseason with first-round byes. South Caldwell beat No. 21 Glenn 5-1 in the second round and followed up with a 10-0 run-rule victory against No. 20 Ronald Reagan. The Spartans then used a six-run sixth inning Friday to knock out No. 9 Providence 11-3.
Mooresville held off No. 14 Hough 8-6 in a second-round home matchup before eliminating No. 6 Olympic 3-1. The Blue Devils then beat No. 7 Hickory Ridge 11-3 in their game last Thursday.
Tuesday’s game will be at Mooresville with the return game Wednesday at South Caldwell. Should they split those first two, a deciding third game will be Friday back at Mooresville. First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. each night.
The winner advances to the best-of-three state championship series May 31-June 1 against the winner of the 4A East Regional between No. 2 Heritage and No. 4 Hoggard.