WALNUT COVE — The fourth time truly is the charm.
East Surry softball overcame three regular season losses to North Stokes (20-3) to become just the third team to defeat the Vikings in 2018. And on the stage of the conference tournament championship, no less.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our girls,” said Cardinals coach Randy Marion. “We’ve played the toughest schedule we could possibly play. We’ve had a lot of adversity and have struggled, but I told the girls that this is what we’ve been building for.”
Even when it came down to the wire, East Surry played with a bend-don’t-break mentality and it resulted in a victory in the Northwest 1A tournament title.
“When we get in these situations, all that hard work and going through all those challenges is going to make us a better team [when] it really counts,” Marion said.
Marion told his players to treat this game like the first round of the state playoffs; win or go home. But the effort of one player wasn’t going to cut it. Every player on the roster contributed to the win in one way or another, whether that be hitting, fielding, or pinch-running.
Going into the seventh inning with a 3-2 lead, East Surry huddled together for some words of wisdom. Upon breaking the huddle, the team shouted, “We are one.” Marion said the team has lived by that saying all season.
“We want to be a very unselfish team,” Marion said. “It’s not about any one individual, it’s about the team. We’ve all got to be there pulling for each other. Everybody has a role.”
The Cardinals had been blown out by the Vikings earlier this season. East Surry also lost by one run in extra innings. No matter how close the meetings got, North Stokes managed to pull away with the victory. But something was different in Thursday’s game.
“The main thing was that we got more base-runners tonight,” Marion said. “Every little run counts. If you can get somebody in scoring position with a bunt, that’s what you’ve got to do. We played more small-ball off the bat today instead of waiting until later in the game.”
Marion wasn’t exaggerating when he said the Lady Cards didn’t wait to put runs on the board. East Surry took a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning, with each of the first three batters crossing the plate.
Bethany Clayton and Hali Scott each recorded singles to start the game. Autumn Lawson got to first on a Viking error that also allowed Clayton to score. Grace Kiser was up next and hit a sacrifice RBI that scored Scott. Allie Bruner completed the three-run inning with an RBI double that scored Leah Hayes, who was running for Lawson. The 3-0 advantage was the largest lead the Cards had on the Lady Vikings all season.
North Stokes responded in the bottom of the first with two runs of their own. Carley Gravely led off with a double on her second pitch. East’s Lawson struck out the next batter, but then gave up an RBI double to Autumn Martin. Martin then scored on an RBI single from Lora Wood, cutting the lead to 3-2.
An explosive first inning was followed up by five innings of quality defense by both squads. North Stokes only managed two total hits in innings two, three, four, five, and six. In the same span, East Surry had four hits, but failed to make it back to the plate.
It was in this time that Marion said Cardinal pitcher Lawson truly shined.
“Autumn Lawson has been a go-to player for us for three years,” Marion said. “You put her in a situation like this, and she is going to thrive. She absolutely loves the competition, she loves the big moment, and she just goes out there and gives it everything she’s got.”
Then things started to heat up once again in the top of the seventh. Lawson was up to bat with two outs and hit a single. Lawson’s pinch-runner, Hayes, joined Anna-Kate Badgett on base. Badgett was walked to start the inning and made it to third on Lawson’s hit.
With Grace Kiser up to bat, Hayes attempted to steal second. Hayes moved slowly to attract the attention of the Vikings’ catcher and it worked. When the ball was thrown to second, Badgett stole home. A bad throw back to the plate allowed not only Badgett to score, but it also gave Hayes enough time to round the bases and come home.
Now up 5-2, the Cards’ Kiser hit a single. Maggie Holt was then walked, moving pinch-runner Ally McCraw to second. Bruner scored both Holt and McCraw on a two-RBI double that slammed against the fence. North Stokes subbed in Martin on the mound for the final strikeout of the inning.
Down 7-2 and on their final at-bat, the Lady Vikings were in emergency mode. Meanwhile the Cardinals played conservatively, knowing that two or three runs wouldn’t hurt them.
The first Viking batter grounded out at first. Gravley hit a single, then an error at shortstop allowed Hawkins to get on base. An RBI single from Martin scored Gravley and cut the lead to 7-3.
Allie Boles followed up an RBI grounder with an RBI single of her. With two outs and the lead cut to 7-5, Wood hit a ground ball straight at Lawson. Lawson proceeded to end the game with a toss to Holt on first.
This is the third time in four years the Cardinals have won the tournament. It is also the fifth straight year that the Cardinals and Vikings have met in the finals.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith