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Championship seasons for the North Johnston High varsity softball team, each of the last two seasons, have ended with the same result — a loss deep in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A playoffs to South Granville.
The Lady Panthers of head coach Chris Batten bowed to South Granville in the third round in 2017, and the Lady Vikings were turned back in the state-championship series after claiming state supremacy in 2016.
Then, last weekend, North Johnston fell in two straight games to South Granville in the best-of-3 East Region finals. Next, South Granville opposes West Region queen Franklin later in the week in quest of its 10th state championship since 1987.
The 2-A powers have tangled in the playoffs previously with split success, and the occurrences of the last two seasons might be viewed as a strong indicator of more to come.
MORE TO COME
Last weekend, North Johnston started a mere two seniors along with five juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen.
South Granville countered with a lineup of two seniors, no juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen.
The Lady Panthers entered the East final with a .453 batting average, 34 home runs, 60 stolen bases, a 1.54 earned run average and a .943 fielding percentage.
Those daunting numbers were topped by South Granville with a .484 batting average, 39 homers, 65 stolen bases, an 1.69 ERA and a .958 fielding percentage.
A play or mistake here or there was bound to make a huge difference. Such was the case when the Lady Vikings prevailed 12-9 to deal North Johnston its only 2018 loss on its George Daniels Field diamond and then ended the Lady Panthers’ season with a 7-3 triumph amid their cozy setting Saturday.
Following Friday’s win, South Granville head coach Jackie Day credited his program’s “strong culture.”
“The older girls have big-game experience and provide leadership,” Day explained. “They bring the young girls up to speed really quick. Our team is strong; we try to build a culture that’s going to be strong.”
Following Saturday’s win, Day added: “The strength of it shows up when you have a little adversity. (The players) go with the flow.”
South Granville’s advance is to be admired.
The Lady Vikings’ third-round contest was postponed Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before finally being played Thursday. South Granville was forced extra innings before ousting Whiteville, 7-5.
The team was left with Friday and Saturday to get in, if necessary, three games against North Johnston.
“They’re warmed up,” Day quipped. “There was no down time.”
North Johnston’s two seniors are catcher Jada Santiago and first baseman Lexi Godwin. They leave a tremendous void.
Santiago batted an off-the-charts .608 (48 for 79), drove in 60 runs (two per game), scored 44 and her 24 extra-base hits included a program-record 14 home runs. As a catcher, she excelled in about every category.
Neither was Godwin shabby, batting a commendable .480 (36 for 75) with 33 runs, 27 RBIs and four homers among 12 extra-base hits. She made all the plays at first base.
Santiago will continue her career at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, while Godwin has signed a National Letter of Intent with North Carolina.
Travel softball is also prominent in the career of Lady Panthers junior shortstop Blayke Batten. However, she encourages prospective athletes to embrace the high school experience she cherishes.
“I am blessed to be able to play on this team,” Batten remarked as she struggled with her emotions. “They are like my family; in high school, you become a family.”
She sees the Lady Panthers’ prosperous tradition continuing.
“We are always going to be a strong team,” Batten declared, “and we are going to keep it going. But we thought this could be the year; we knew this team could do it.”
Batten, the daughter of the head coach, will be motivated for her senior season. She’d just as soon forget her last two games as a junior.
“That’s part of playing ball,” her father reasoned. “We tell them to keep the down times short and the up times long. Enjoy the ride!”
Saturday’s loss was certainly memorable for freshman right-handed pitcher Taylor Jones, who was summoned to pitch in the third inning with the Lady Panthers trailing 4-1.
Jones, who posted a 7-0 record, realized the seniors’ careers were in peril. Admitting she utilized her change-up more than usual, Jones worked out of jams in the third and fourth innings, but her control deserted her in the fifth.
“I knew I needed to do good,” she said. “And that I needed to do all I could to keep us going and help the senior girls get what they wanted. That’s how I would want it to be if I was a senior. But I wasn’t able do all that I could.
“But this (experience) makes me want to do better, work hard and go farther.”
South Granville’s Day credited North Johnston pitchers Amberlynn Pearce and Jones for keeping his hitters off-balance and noted: “Bloop hits helped us out and I’ll take that all day long.”
Day hailed North Johnston as a “great team,” adding: “It’s a shame both teams are in the East.”
And destined for more late playoff runs in the immediate future.