RALEIGH – In a game that began in May and finished in June, South Caldwell was pushed to the brink of coming up short in the state championship series for a second straight year.
Regan Weisner provided a dramatic home run in the top of the seventh to tie the score and eventually force extra innings. The Spartans wasted a golden opportunity to pull ahead in the eighth, while Hoggard capitalized later in the inning to walk off with a 3-2 victory in the first game of the NCHSAA 4A softball state championship at N.C. State’s Dail Field.
The best-of-three series began Friday night but had to be suspended in the bottom of the third inning due to heavy rains that moved through the region. Play resumed Saturday morning with No. 4 Hoggard (20-7) leading 2-1 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Spartans pitcher Anna King started the day with a strikeout to keep the Vikings from adding to their lead.
Missed chances proved vital over the next few innings. No. 5 South Caldwell (23-5) put two runners on board in the fifth. Jenna Pittman reached safely on a pop fly that caused the Hoggard second baseman and shortstop to collide. Ciara Hanson was then intentionally walked to bring up Addison Blair, who struck out swinging to end the inning.
The Spartans put two more runners on in the sixth. Katie Wright hit a one-out single and Logan Keller followed two batters later with a sharply hit single off the third baseman’s glove. Both were left stranded when Hoggard pitcher Jesse Mathis got Jasmine Hall to pop up.
In the home half of the inning, Hoggard looked to add insurance runs after a walk and a single with one out. King got out of the jam with her sixth strikeout and a pop fly to first.
With South Caldwell down to its final outs and needing a run to extend the game, Weisner stepped up and delivered, just as she did in the regional final against Mooresville. Following Pittman’s flyout to start the seventh, the sophomore lofted a hit high into the sky. The Hoggard left fielder tracked it to the wall and made a leaping effort, but the ball barely escaped her grasp. Weisner’s state-leading 17th home run of the season knotted the score at 2-all.
The top of the eighth saw the visiting team load the bases with no outs yet come away empty-handed. Jackson and Wright led off with back-to-back singles to left. Sheyanne Maye came in to pinch-hit with the intent to sacrifice bunt, but wound up drawing a walk instead. All three runners were left stranded after a strikeout, pop fly to second and a grounder back to Mathis in the circle.
“It’s the same thing we’ve preached about all the time,” South Caldwell coach Casey Justice said. “When we are struggling at the plate, we are long and we try to hit the ball out of the ballpark and we pop up and strike out. When we are short and we put the ball in play consistently on the ground or lower line drives, we’re fine. But when we have that fly ball/home run approach, then we don’t score a lot of runs.”
With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Skyler Walker doubled to the wall in left to put the winning run in scoring position. King then issued free passes to the next two hitters to load the bases. That prompted a South Caldwell pitching change, with Justice electing to bring in Pittman to get the final two outs.
The next hitter, Jaclyn Jordan, hit a hard grounder to third that couldn’t be corralled, bringing home Walker for the walk-off winner.
South Caldwell finished the game with nine hits compared to the Vikings’ five. But the Spartans stranded 12 runners, seven of those in scoring position.
“It’s the same thing I believe last year, if you look at it, we had left 13,” Justice said about a game in last year’s title series loss to Jack Britt. “I don’t care how talented they are. Yes, they are talented. But you’re going to have to figure out in your heart how to be a big player on a big stage.”
Weisner finished 2-for-3 with both of her team’s RBIs. She’s now driven in 53 on the year, which ranks sixth in the state. Hanson and Wright also finished with a pair of hits apiece.
King (7-2) went 7.1 innings, with all three runs she allowed unearned. She had the six strikeouts but issued seven free passes in picking up just her second loss in her high school career, both coming this season.
“She struggled with location a little bit,” Justice said of the junior hurler. “She threw good enough. She threw good enough for sure. She battled through some things. We have to realize too the zone is going to be tight.”
For Hoggard, Walker had a pair of hits and scored twice to lead the offense. Mathis (19-7) pitched her 24th complete game of the year and added 10 strikeouts to her state-leading total this season.
Game two in the series begins at 5 p.m. Saturday. South Caldwell will need to win that one to force a winner-take-all game, which will take place sometime Sunday. The NCHSAA has yet to announce details for a potential game time.
“We’ve got to make plays, man. We’ve just got to step up,” Justice said. “That’s it. I feel like again we’re better, but if we don’t figure out how to overcome whatever the hell it is, it’s going to be the same boat as last year.”