With an entire morning and all afternoon to think about his ball club’s showdown against Chapel Hill, the Central High School softball coach had a feeling it would be a nail-biter when the pair of sub-region champions met in the Region 4-AAA Tournament later that evening — and it indeed lived up to the billing.
The host No. 6 Lady Lions pushed the game’s lone run across in the bottom of the first inning and used some spectacular defensive play behind hurler Taylor Funk to hang on for the 1-0 victory, clinching home-field advantage for the opening round of the Class AAA state playoffs and putting them one step away from the Region 4-AAA tourney title.
“That’s one that all day long I felt like I had my stomach up in my throat knowing that it was going to be a tough battle,” LeBlanc said.
Central (23-7) now awaits the winner of today’s contest between Chapel Hill and the Rockmart/Haralson County winner from the late game Thursday evening in a 7 p.m. contest. Whoever reaches the finals will have to beat Central twice in the double-elimination format.
After Funk wiggled out of a jam in the top of the first — the Lady Panthers (19-12) stranded runners at second and third — Lady Lion sophomore first baseman Hayley Sims got the rally started in the bottom of the frame with a one-out double. She would come around to score the game’s only run on a two-out single by senior catcher Alison Jiles.
From there, it was a defensive clinic — outside of one little hiccup in the sixth inning — by Central.
Junior outfielder Rebekah Smith made a one-handed, running snag on a liner to left in the fourth, which was followed by a leaping catch by sophomore second baseman Jordyn Scott in the following at-bat to end the inning. In the fifth, it was senior right fielder Shena Chambers making a diving catch on a blooper to rob Chapel Hill of a base knock and sophomore shortstop Aubrey Bennett capped off a strong defensive performance with an over-the-shoulder catch in shallow center field for the final out in the sixth, stranding runners at second and third.
“Wow, man, both teams just did a great job. We were able to get that one across. We had a great catch in left by Rebekah Smith, then right after that a line drive at Jordyn [Scott] and Shena [Chambers] came in and got that one on her knees. So [Chapel Hill] put the ball in play. They came out hitting the ball real hard. That’s a really solid ball team — ain’t no doubt about it,” LeBlanc said.
The Lady Panthers had one last shot in the seventh after Caitlin Legrand reached on a one-out single and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and third on a passed ball. With two outs, Hallie Rutledge drew a walk and stole second, putting the tying and go-ahead runners in scoring position.
But Funk was able to get the final out with her eighth punchout of the night for the dramatic victory. The sophomore right-hander allowed just four hits and one walk in the complete-game shutout. Her counterpart in the circle, Lady Panther sophomore Darby Demarest, was equally impressive, yielding four hits and three walks with four strikeouts in six innings.
Offensively, Jiles was 1-for-2 with a walk and an RBI for Central, while Sims (1-for-3, 2B, run), Cade North (1-for-2) and Scott (1-for-3) accounted for the other three hits. Chapel Hill was led by Hannah Austin (2-for-2), while Kayley Barker (1-for-2) and LeGrand (1-for-3) also had hits.
And after surviving Thursday’s thriller, Central will try to finish the job tonight on its home turf.
“Enjoy this, then get your mind refocused for [Friday] — because it ain’t over. We’d like to do it in one if we can,” LeBlanc said.