Prep Softball Playoffs: East Rowan 2, North Iredell 1: Mustangs headed to Raleigh
By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY — Coaches will tell you it’s even harder to stay on top than it is to get there, but East Rowan claimed a repeat trip to Raleigh’s Final Four on a hot, tense Saturday afternoon.
East was shut down offensively, but poised pitcher Chelsea White, aggressive baserunning and airtight defense were enough to get it done in the fourth round of the 3A playoffs. East scored twice on early North Iredell mistakes and held off its toughest area rival 2-1 to earn a second chance at a 3A championship ring.
“With what we did last year (25-3) and the players we had coming back, there was a target on our back all year,” East coach Mike Waddell said. “Everyone we played was fired up for us, and we played a really tough schedule with a lot of nailbiters. It wasn’t easy — neither year was easy — but the girls did what they needed to do to get back to Raleigh.”
Seniors White, shortstop Ericka Nesbitt, center fielder Kayla Kirk and first baseman Meagan Kluttz, all four-year varsity players, went out with one more victory, the 86th they’ve been a part of.
Nesbitt squeezed a popup for the final out, setting off a mild celebration, but nothing like the bedlam that accompanied last season’s fourth-round victory. Probably because this time the Mustangs are looking at qualifying for the Final Four as one more step — not the end of the journey. There’s still work to do.
“I do think it’s harder to get back than to go to the Final Four that first time,” said sophomore second baseman Sydney Poole, who cleanly fielded four groundballs, two that were sizzling. “Last year we didn’t know what it would take. This time we knew exactly how hard it would be.”
White struck out only three, which means the Mustangs (24-2) behind her had to get 18 outs. The defense made every play, and third baseman Steffi Sides turned a popped up bunt attempt into a double play to end the second inning.
“I’d thought about this game a lot, my last time pitching on this field,” said White, who will be a four-time county player of the year. “I really wanted it to be a good game, and it was. I got so much help. Our defense was awesome. Poole save me a few times.”
The only pitch East hammered solidly against junior Karley Harkey was a double Kluttz sent whistling to the left-field fence in the fourth.
“She was pitching outside a lot, but I had a feeling she’d try to bust me inside,” Kluttz said. “I was ready for it.”
North Iredell’s defense let down Harkey early.
Nesbitt led off the East first with a nice bunt toward third. She had the play beaten at first, but when a high throw sailed into the wide-open spaces down the right-field line, Nesbitt easily circled the bases without a throw.
Poole walked to start the second, moved up on Kluttz’s bunt and made it to third when Ally Mills’ bloop single fell safely in shallow right. When the routine throw back to the circle headed to no one in particular, Poole lit out for home.
“I heard Waddell screaming, ‘Go, go, go!,’ so I ran fast and hoped,” Poole said.
She scored, and White had a 2-0 cushion.
“Last time we played them (North Iredell beat East in the NPC tournament), we made mistakes, but we were able to turn the tide today,” Waddell said. “They left the door open and we took advantage.”
Harkey’s out-out single and a booming two-out double to the fence in left-center by Heather Josey cut East’s lead to 2-1 in the fourth, but White got the third out on a popup.
“We just didn’t start out strong,” North Iredell coach Lauren Gaither said with a sigh. “Everyone knows East Rowan has one heck of a team, but even down 2-0 we didn’t fold. We just couldn’t get two runs back against Chelsea.”
NI (18-8) didn’t have a baserunner the last three innings. A key for White was a 1-2-3 sixth against the tough top of the Raiders’ lineup.
“It was kinda sad playing my last game here, but I really wasn’t that worried,” Kluttz said. “We were playing very good defense today. I knew we’d be OK if we kept it up.”
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