The night had progressed to its most likely conclusion. One after the other, Forsyth Central softball coach Kaelin Farrington sent out a pinch hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning, three outs away from the mercy rule, and one by one Cambridge starting pitcher Keara Napoli sent them back to the dugout a strikeout victim.
The Lady Bulldogs were no match for the Lady Bears’ ace, managing just one hit and three base runners total in a 13-0 loss in five innings Thursday at home with first place on the line in Region 7-AAAAA, Div. B.
Central (6-4, 4-2) knew what awaited it Thursday night. It knew about Napoli, the junior pitcher verbally committed to Georgia and the Lady Bears’ ace the past two seasons. It knew Cambridge (9-0, 7-0) had been unscored on, a staggering run through its first eight games of the season. Napoli started every one, including the Lady Bears’ 8-0 victory against Central on Aug. 11 in its season-opener.
But the Lady Bulldogs entered the game on a six-game winning streak that included all manner of encouragement. There were the wins, a tear that included county rival North Forsyth and sub-region contender Sprayberry. There was the reinforcement, sophomore shortstop Morgan Watson who joined the varsity team after her hardship transfer from North had been approved and hit a home run Tuesday. There were the standings, with Central in second place just a game behind Cambridge. Confidence growing, maybe this time would be different.
Instead, the Lady Bears got to Central starting pitcher Emma Lowe early. After a hit batter, three line drive singles and two runs, Farrington pulled Lowe after facing just face hitters. In came junior Brooke Wade, but a hit batter, two singles and a sacrifice fly plated three more runs.
Central trailed 5-0 and had yet to face Napoli.
“She’s got the confidence of five runs behind her,” Farrington said. “She’s not going to give that up.”
It was an auspicious start, nonetheless – Central’s Sadie Waters led off with a sharp single to left and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Karah Straub. There she was in scoring position for the heart of Central’s lineup.
Napoli simply dug in, striking out Marissa Hull swinging, then her sister, Alexa, looking to end the inning. The Lady Bulldogs got a runner in scoring position just once more, when Hannah Carpenter and Wade drew walks in the bottom of the second, but Napoli had the answer again, striking out Grace Kiser and Lindsay Race to extinguish the threat. Napoli retired seven straight with strikeouts at one point. She finished with 10 in five innings and allowed just the hit to Waters.
“[Napoli has] a lot of confidence, and she’s a great leader,” Cambridge head coach Anna McDaniel said. “She leads the team really well. They all believe in her, so it trickles down.”
Still, after the game there was room in the loss’ aftermath for light laughter by Central. The Lady Bulldogs weren’t willing to let Thursday night wipe away everything it’d accomplished over its six-game winning streak, but they were willing to let the loss serve some purpose going forward.
“Obviously tonight shows what we need to work on,” Farrington said. “I think our biggest thing is just getting them to believe they can play with that caliber of a team like that. Cambridge is a great team, but we need to learn how to compete at their level.”