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KENLY — More than the weather threatened the championship-minded North Johnston High varsity softball team on its George Daniels Field diamond Tuesday night.
But not for long.
Junior right-handed pitcher Amberlynn Pearce pitched out of a big-time jam in the top of the fourth inning and, in the bottom half of the inning, she triggered a six-run uprising with a lead-off home run as the Lady Panthers ousted free-swinging South Lenoir 8-4 in the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A playoffs.
The late-starting game opened in a drizzle that became a light rain. South Lenoir, the runner-up from the Eastern Carolina Conference and seeded No. 10 among the 32 East Region qualifiers, trailed only 2-1 when the precipitation stopped after three innings.
But an inning later, the Lady Blue Devils (20-4) trailed 8-1 and No. 2 North Johnston, the Eastern Plains Conference queen, was on its way to a fourth-round home encounter against Yanceyville Bartlett Yancey, which spilled No. 3 Providence Grove, 2-1, on Tuesday.
North Johnston hiked its record to 26-1 and, in the circle, Pearce reached the 20-win plateau against one loss.
Lady Panthers head coach Chris Batten expressed satisfaction with an eight-hit offensive that included three home runs and with Pearce’s pitching.
“But more than anything, I am pleased with our defense,” Batten declared. “The defense did its job to hold them at bay until we could scratch out a couple of runs. Defense was definitely the difference tonight.”
The fourth inning evolved as the game-turner.
In the top half of the inning, singles by senior third baseman Lauren Jones and sophomore pitcher Logan Lucas and a North Johnston throwing error left the Lady Blue Devils with base runners at second and third and no outs.
But North Johnston junior shortstop Blayke Batten’s stop and off-balanced throw to first base on junior second baseman Kenley Hardison’s bouncer produced the first out and kept the base runners at second and third. Pearce struck out junior right fielder Samantha Sutton and escaped unscathed when Lady Panthers junior third baseman Lindsey Massengill snow-coned a line drive off the bat of junior catcher Allie Parker.
Pearce led off the bottom half of the inning with her second homer, a smash over the center-field fence. After an error and junior center fielder Jordyn Scott’s run-producing hit, Batten walloped her ninth homer, a two-run shot. A walk, senior first baseman Lexi Godwin’s double and a South Lenoir error resulted in two more runs.
“They were both pretty exciting,” Pearce commented of pitching out of the jam and then slugging a homer. “The team was behind me and I knew everything was OK. I knew, when I hit it, the team would come alive with the bats; that’s exactly what happened.
“I thought it was going to be a tight game all the way to the seventh inning, but we stayed confident, believed in ourselves and kept our heads up.”
Pearce, in the circle, allowed eight hits, four earned runs and two walks. She struck out five.
“It was one of my better games, actually,” she reviewed. “They could hit the ball. I tried to keep (pitches) off the white of the plate. If I left them over the plate, they got a hold of it. I was hitting most of my spots. I mainly lived off the outside of the plate and tried to keep them off-balance.”
Added Batten: “I got a good scouting report. We were told they were aggressive on inside pitches — and they were. The scouting report helped.”
North Johnston opened the scoring in the bottom of the first on senior catcher Jada Santiago’s 12th homer of 2018 — a line shot to right-center field.
South Lenoir, with a team batting average over .400, threatened in the first and got a run back in the second when Lucas led off with a homer.
In the fifth, sophomore center fielder Sarah Stroud doubled and scored on a ground out. Stroud struck again in the seventh with a two-run homer.
“We work hard all the time,” said veteran South Lenoir head coach Lisa Smith. “We just had a couple of mistakes. But I am extremely proud of the girls and the way they play. We do things the right way — no matter what.
“They’re a good team and we came in swinging. We knew who made the least amount of mistakes was going to win.”
North Johnston matched its fourth-round advance of last season behind a 3-for-4 showing from Batten, a pair of hits from Godwin and a sensational diving catch from sophomore right fielder Hailey Medlin in the sixth.
Score by innings:
WP-Amberlynn Pearce (20-1) 7 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 5 SO. LP-Logan Lucas 6 IP, 8 H, 8 R, 6 ER, 5 BB, 0 SO.
LEADING HITTERS — South Lenoir: Sarah Stroud 2-4, HR, 2B, 2 RBI; Logan Lucas 2-3, HR, RBI; Allie Parker 2-3; North Johnston: Blayke Batten 3-4, HR, 2 RBI; Lexi Godwin 2-3, 2B; Jordyn Scott 1-1, RBI; Jada Santiago 1-4, HR, 2 RBI; Amberlynn Pearce 1-4, HR, RBI.