Prep Softball: Carson gets share of NPC championship
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — Senior Rylie Stewart pitched a one-hitter with the help of an inspired defense, and Carson beat West Rowan, 2-0, in an epic North Piedmont Conference softball game on Saturday afternoon.
“We were the underdogs coming into this, and no one expected us to win,” Stewart said. “So we played loose. I was relaxed. We had nothing to lose.”
Carson had lost 10 of its last 11 games against West, but the Cougars did look relaxed. They made every play imaginable with the gloves, especially center fielder Maci Cooper.
“Our mindset today was to play good defense and give ourselves a chance,” Carson coach Charissa Duncan said. “The first time we played West we lost (6-4) because of our defensive mistakes. West can hit the ball, but we were good on defense today.”
The road victory means Carson (14-6, 8-2) will tie for first place in its league for the first time. West (15-5, 7-2) still has a conference game to play against Statesville on Monday, but the Falcons won the first meeting with the Greyhounds, 14-1, so West will share the title with Carson unless the upset of the century occurs.
Both teams may have played their best defensive game of the season on Saturday. The Falcons didn’t make any errors on a sunny, breezy day, and center fielder Hannah Pratt and left fielder Camryn Nooner made exceptional catches. Second baseman Alexandra Linder produced an unassisted double play.
“Our defense was sharp,” West catcher Parker Greene said. “We just didn’t make enough adjustments at the plate and didn’t put enough balls in play on the ground. We hit it in the air too much.”
Stewart’s shakiest inning was the first when she issued two walks and received a coaching visit. After a brief chat, Morgan Corriher rapped a one-hopper right back to Stewart, who gloved the hot bouncer and tossed to first for the third out.
The only hit Stewart allowed was a clean single up the middle by opposing pitcher Hannah Roberts in the second.
In the third inning, West hit three shots. Linder flew out to deep right before Greene crushed a drive toward center. It looked like a homer, but the ball got knocked down by the wind, and Cooper got to the fence and made a leaping catch.
“I knew I hit it solid, and I took a peek out there to see where the center fielder was running,” Greene said. “Then I saw her re-adjusting and stopping.”
After Stewart pitched carefully to Mary Sobataka and walked her, Taylor Walton smashed a liner to center. This time the 4-foot-11 Cooper came roaring in and grabbed the ball inches from the grass with a dive.
“Maci made some snags today,” Stewart said. “She was great.”
Roberts scattered five singles through five shutout innings. It was still 0-0 when Carson broke through abruptly in the sixth. After Katie Jewell’s deep drive to center was hauled in at the fence by Pratt, Carson had two out and none on. But then freshmen Kary Hales and Liza Simmerson punched back-to-back singles.
Roberts was tiring and Walton, West’s DP/relief pitcher, was warmed up, but the next batter, Kaitlyn Honeycutt was 0-for-2 against Roberts. After a meeting in the circle, West coach Jimmy Greene stuck with his veteran hurler.
Honeycutt, a junior outfielder, is a .400 hitter, and on a 2-and-1 pitch, she came through with her biggest hit of the season. She lashed a line-drive double to the fence in right-center. Hales and Simmerson raced around the bases for a 2-0 lead.
“Everyone told me not to stress out and not to over-think,” Honeycutt said. “So I didn’t stress. She’d been been pitching me outside all day, and I got a pitch right where I was looking for it, and I went with it.”
Walton relieved Roberts after that pitch and stopped the Cougars the rest of the way.
But Stewart also stopped the Falcons. The critical inning for Stewart was the bottom of the sixth when West sent up Greene, Sobataka and Walton, three girls who can take the ball out of the park at any time.
“West knows me well and they know the screwball is my go-to pitch,” Stewart said. “But my dad (assistant coach Shane Stewart) knows all the West hitters well also and was calling the pitches. I just had to put my pitches in the right spots.”
Greene blistered one down the line. Somehow Simmerson caught it, sprawling across the first-base bag. Sobataka hit one on the nose. It left the bat looking like a gapper, but the wind seized it, blew it back toward left, and a double became a routine out. Moments later, Stewart, who struck out four and walked four, was back in the dugout.
Corriher showed patience with a lead-off walk to begin the bottom of the seventh, but Duncan didn’t flinch.
“Sometimes you just have to let a pitcher work through it,” Duncan said. “I didn’t want to put any extra pressure on Rylie, so I didn’t go out there. She did a great job of keeping her composure.”
Stewart jammed Pratt for an easy popup. Then she was practically dancing around the circle after a strikeout. The final out came on Stewart’s 78th pitch when Roberts stroked a hard bouncer to third base. Jessica Freeze had a flawless effort, 3-for-3 at the plate and lots of smooth defense, and she made another play. Her accurate throw across the diamond to Simmerson touched off a Carson celebration.
“A conference championship was one of our goals before the season,” Stewart said. “So I was getting pretty excited out there.”
West is certain to share that championship and learned a valuable lesson on Saturday.
“We’ve got a lot of home-run hitters, but you’ve also got to be able to push across that one run early in the game and we just didn’t get that done today,” Coach Greene said. “Sure, we hit some balls hard, but this was a day when it wasn’t easy to get one out of here, and Carson made the plays. It’s a tough loss for us, our first loss all season at home.”
While the Senior Day setback will sting for a few days, West and Carson may square off for a third time in the NPC tournament this week. Carson will host the event. The league’s No. 1 seed for the 3A state playoffs will be West or Carson and will be determined by the conference tournament. The tournament is expected to be just a four-team affair, with semifinals on Wednesday.
Carson 000 002 0 — 2 9 0
West 000 000 0 — 0 1 0
W — Stewart. L — Roberts.
Leading hitters: Carson: Freeze 3-for-3; Simmerson 2-for-3; Honeycutt 1-for-3, 2 RBIs. West: Roberts 1-for-3.
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