What started as a warm evening turned out to be a hot night for the South Caldwell bats. The Spartans pounded out 14 hits Friday to beat visiting Providence 11-3 and advance to the NCHSAA 4A West Region final for a second straight year.
“It’s been a goal since we left,” South Caldwell coach Casey Justice said about moving within two wins of a return trip to the state championship. “All that adversity early sucks. But it’s made us stronger for it and I think we’re getting to be better than we can possibly be right now.”
Each time the fifth-seeded Spartans (21-3) fell behind, they immediately had an answer. No. 9 Providence (18-6) took an initial lead in the top of the first after turning a baserunning blunder into a run. Jenna Pittman retired the first two hitters she faced before walking the next two. Lauren Cope then hit a ball past the shortstop, and as the relay throw went home, the runner at third stopped but the runner at second kept going.
The Panthers got jammed at third and then jammed again at second as runners retreated. But enough time was bought for Lili Bowen to eventually come in for a 1-0 lead.
Providence didn’t make it out of the inning with the lead, though. After a two-out intentional walk to the state’s home run leader in Regan Weisner, Ciara Hanson moved the runner to third on a single to right. Addison Blair then beat out a dribbler down the third-base line as Weisner came in to even the score.
The Panthers pulled ahead again in the third on Bowen’s RBI single. But once again, the visitors’ lead was short-lived. Blair continued to swing a hot bat, doubling home Pittman and Weisner in the home half of the inning to make it 3-2 Spartans.
“That’s the thing we’ve preached from day one of workouts,” Justice said about his team’s quick responses. “That’s how I am and they know what I expect. They don’t want to lose, man. They’re not going to lose.”
That score held until the fifth. Pittman led off the inning with a single and scored from first on Hanson’s double to the wall in center. Following an intentional walk to Blair, Katie Wright hit a blooper that bounced in front of second base to bring home a hustling Jenna Jackson, who had come in to run for Hanson.
Trailing 5-2, Providence pulled one back in the sixth. A single and a walk put two ducks on the pond for Emma Ficker, who drove in a run after singling through the left side.
Carolyn Bentley then hit a ball to the right of shortstop Jasmine Hall, who made the scoop play and tried to get the force out at third. The ball bounced off the runner, however, and went toward the dugout. But a recovery and heads-up throw home got Ava Rossi out at the plate. The return throw to third then beat the advancing Ficker for a double play to get out of the inning without further damage.
“That was huge,” said Justice, who was fired up after the play. “That could have been a rough inning right there. When that happened, momentum flipped.”
Indeed, South Caldwell turned its defensive good fortunes into an offensive explosion in the next half-inning. Logan Keller started the frame with a double to the wall in right-center. Hall traded places with her after ripping her own two-bagger down the left-field line. Pittman then reached safely after the Providence right fielder dropped a fly ball, allowing Hall to score.
After Weisner flew out, Hanson delivered an RBI double to left field. Blair was then intentionally walked for the second time. A Kenley Jackson single loaded the bases for Catherine Huggins, who cleared them all by roping a double into right-center for the game’s final runs.
Pittman allowed a leadoff double to start the seventh. But she then snagged Ella Jordan’s comebacker and caught Margaret Combs off the bag for a double play. The senior finished her complete-game effort with her fourth strikeout of the night.
The three intentional walks to two of his best hitters didn’t come as a surprise to Justice. But the production throughout the back half of the lineup insured that the Spartans capitalized on those free baserunners.
“I was so proud of my other ones for stepping up,” Justice said. “Because that can really kill you. If we don’t have the girls in the bottom to step up, then that beats you.”
Hanson led the offense with three hits, including two doubles and two runs driven in. Blair, who finished 2-for-2 with three RBIs, now has eight hits and 12 RBIs in her last 12 at-bats dating to the conference championship game against Alexander Central.
Pittman allowed six hits over seven innings in the pitcher’s circle, while also picking up two runs at the plate and scoring twice.
Waiting for South Caldwell in the regional best-of-three final is No. 3 Mooresville, who eliminated Hickory Ridge on Thursday. The Spartans knocked out the Blue Devils in the fourth round of last year’s state playoffs.
“I know some of the girls on that team I coached through state games,” Justice said. “They’re good, they’re athletic.”
South Caldwell will be at Mooresville on Tuesday.