On Wednesday, North Forsyth’s softball team knew they’d have way more of a challenge in the second round of the state playoffs than they did in the first, facing a Hillgrove team that had also won more than 20 games.
They couldn’t have expected that their greatest enemy would be themselves.
The Raiders were battling the Hawks back and forth in Game 1 of their best-of-three series, holding a slim one-run lead heading into the sixth. But in that frame, the normally surehanded Raiders committed three errors, which Hillgrove capitalized on with a two-run home run from Emma McBrayer and back-to-back RBI doubles before North finally induced a flyout to end the inning. All of a sudden, North was trailing by four.
“It's kind of unusual for us,” North head coach Jim Cahill said. “Even after we made those errors, we started fighting back and we had a chance to win at the end. It didn't really faze us, but it was just uncharacteristic of us.”
And while the Raiders did draw to within two in the bottom half, that fateful inning ultimately was the difference for North, which lost the opening game of the series 7-5. With their 19-game winning streak snapped and facing elimination from the playoffs, the Raiders had to quickly refocus.
“I think we just had to realize, ‘OK, it's happened,’” Abby Martin said. “’Now that that inning's over, we have to move on from here and keep trying to progress.’”
North did just that in Game 2, crossing the plate six times in the first inning en route to a 13-8 win to extend the series to a decisive third game on Thursday.
“They were tough,” Cahill said. “We knew they were tough coming in. They're a team (that's) a lot like us -- they can swing the bat. We knew it was going to be a dogfight.
“It's hard to win 20 games in a row. I think we had won 19 or something like that. You play a best-of-three to find out who the best team is. We can't let one game define us.”
Game 1 started slowly, although North was able to get runners on base in each of the first two frames. The Raiders took a 2-0 lead in the third on a Martin sac fly and an RBI single from Katie Sarfaty. McBrayer hit her first of two home runs in the third to tie the game at 2-2, but North was able to take the lead back at 3-2 in the fifth on an RBI single.
“(McBrayer) wasn't super overpowering but she had good movement, which is not really something we'd seen as much,” Martin said.
North’s error-filled sixth just fed Hillgrove’s rally that featured McBrayer’s second home run, a sacrifice fly from Katie Hassenbacher and RBI doubles from Laura Harris and Rylee Mitchell. Sarfaty and Maggie McBrayer brought in runs for North with a double and a sacrifice fly in the seventh, respectively, but the Raiders could not complete the comeback.
With RBI singles from Martin, Anslee Anderson and a fielder’s choice from Maggie McBrayer, North started Game 2 with a 6-0 lead after just their first time up. The Hawks added one in the bottom of the first, but in the second, Martin connected on a two-run home run off Emma McBrayer to extend her team’s lead to 8-1.
“I think we were in a good spot and we adjusted well to the pitching,” Martin said.
Hillgrove spent the rest of the game playing catch up. Even with home runs from Ryleigh Akery and Divina Checo, the Hawks couldn’t keep up with the Raiders. North’s Hailey Mize connected on a three-run home run in the sixth to keep her team on top.
The Raiders will get a chance to rectify their mistakes on Thursday in a single game that will determine their fate. North is looking forward to it, but with the stakes as high as they are, there will still be some nervous energy.
“The season's on the line, so it'll be exciting,” Cahill said. “I probably won't sleep very much.”