East Forsyth reached the doorstop of Columbus in its inaugural season.
But on Thursday, Pierce County stood in the doorway and blocked the Broncos' entrance, handing East a 7-5 defeat in a winner-take-all Game 3 to reach the Class 3A state tournament.
East finishes the season 23-7, setting standards along the way that will be difficult for any future team to top.
East head coach Dan Weber is optimistic about the program's future.
"I look around and they have seven starting seniors," Weber said. "We have a freshman, freshman, freshman, normally a freshman, freshman, sophomore, sophomore, and tonight I had two juniors in the outfield. This experience is going to be huge."
Pierce County jumped out to a 3-0 advantage behind solo home runs by leadoff hitter Natalie Herrin and Kylie Allen. Natalie Sullivan followed Herrin's homer with a triple, then scored on Rebecca Deloach's sacrifice fly.
East provided an immediate answer, as Ava Cowart and Emily Hutcheson led off the bottom of the first inning with back-to-back singles before coming around to score. Cowart scored on Cadence Alberty's sacrifice fly, then Hutcheson swiped home on a wild pitch to trim Pierce County's lead to one run.
Alberty cruised through the next two innings, sitting the Bears down in order each inning.
Hutcheson made a couple of highlight-reel plays to back Alberty, first laying out to snag a fly ball in shallow center field, then robbing Herrin of another home run by timing her jump perfectly and reaching over the center-field wall to pull it back into play.
"Cadence, this is her third game in a row. We knew they were going to hit her," Weber said. "Our defense just rose up and they did their job. Yesterday our defense let us down. Today they rose up. If we had to describe this team, it's they've got fight. They don't give in. I mean, right there in the last inning, we had first and second and we had a chance. We give ourselves a chance every time."
Meanwhile, East pulled ahead in the second inning as Cali Marshall and Avrie Nowalk scored on a wild pitch, then Alberty singled home Cowart to make it 5-3.
Pierce County chipped away in the fourth inning, using an RBI groundout by Rylee Carden to pull within one run.
Natalee Griffin led off the fifth inning with a single, which brought Herrin to the plate with a runner on first and nobody out, down by one run. But Alberty made the pitch and won the battle to get Herrin to fly out.
However, an errant throw on a ground ball later that inning put runners on first and second, then a walk to Deloach loaded the bases. Allen reached on an RBI fielder's choice to tie the game, then Lizann Hughes delivered what proved to be the game-winning hit with an RBI single.
East came within feet of tying the game when Shelby Conaway led off the bottom of the fifth with a single to right field, then moved to second on Kennah Wall's sacrifice bunt and took third base on a passed ball. But Herrin settled in, issuing back-to-back strikeouts to strand Conaway at third base.
Herrin struck out two more in the six inning, then two more in the seventh inning, working around singles by Alberty and Wall.