SPORTS RECAP: Clutch hits help Raiders split softball quarterfinal series with Madison County, force game 3 for spot in state tourney

The Courier Herald – October 29, 2020

    They melted a bit in the heat of the moment during the first game of the doubleheader, but come game 2, the West Laurens Raiders were equal to the clutch situations they faced with the playoff series, and their 2020 season, on the line. 
   After falling 4-1 to open Tuesday's home series with Madison County in the GHSA AAAA state quarterfinals, West Laurens battled back to take the nightcap, 2-1, and force a third game Wednesday that will decide which team moves on to this weekend's state tournament in Columbus. 
   The Raiders, as the game 2 visitor, broke a 1-apiece tie in their half of the seventh, striking for just the third and fourth hits of the game, both with two down, to pull ahead for the first time in the series. 
   "We knew it'd be tough, we knew it'd be two tight games," said West Laurens head coach Mike Thompson. "The first game we made a couple mistakes and they exploited it… (In game 2), they made some plays, and we just made more right there at the end, and came up with the hit and they didn't. It's good. It gives us another day. We're still alive and that's all we can ask for." 
   Raider freshman Stephanie Perry worked a 3-2 count and went the other way for a base hit to drive in Taylor Sapp from third for the go-ahead run. 
   Sapp almost didn't need her RBI, after smoking a pitch to straightaway center in the previous at-bat that missed leaving the yard by a matter of feet, banging off the top of a sign affixed to the fence for a two-out double. She advanced to third on a wild pitch, and came in to score after a resilient at-bat for Perry, who watched at least 10 pitches and fouled off close to half before the opposite-field knock that cleared the glove of Madison County's leaping second baseman. 
   The ninth-grader, batting as the second-game designated player after starting at third in the first, was the Raiders' only batter with multiple hits in the twin bill. 
   "Stephanie struggled a little bit in the first game, and she was down a little bit, but we kept talking to her and said, 'Look, you'll get another chance. There's going to be another opportunity for you to come up with something,'" Thompson said. "She had a great at-bat right there. She battled. She fouled off pitches. She got it to a full count. And think about it, on this stage, and you're a freshman with the game tied in the bottom of the seventh, and she comes up with that hit right there. That just says a lot about her and the caliber of kid she is." 
   Alyssa Jones, who all night had made excellent pitches to keep the Madison County lineup in check, set down the side to complete the victory in the bottom half of the seventh. 
   After a flyout to center and a groundout for the first two outs, Madison County kept the game alive as Riley Smith singled on an impossibly-well placed blooper inside the line in shallow right field. 
   That cleared the way for slap hitter Rylee Ernst, whose dragging tappers from the left-hand side had given the Raiders problems all day. She'd put the ball in play on each of five trips to the plate, grounding into two errors, a single and an RBI in five prior ABs. And after spoiling multiple two-strike pitches, she did it again – rapping a high chopper toward third base. But Sapp had it played perfectly and threw a strike to first for the final out. 
   Jones gave up only five hits, and struck out two, over a complete game in the circle. 
   "She made some big pitches there at the end," Thompson said. "She stayed behind early in the game a little bit, and we talked to her about getting ahead. She got ahead there at the end, and she made some big pitches against some really good hitters." 
   Till the final inning of the second-game pitchers' duel, the Raiders only had two hits against Madison County pitcher Emma Strickland, the first one a grounder that Emma Riner ran out at first to lead off the game. 
   West Laurens slugger Caroline Pollock delivered the second, and perhaps the biggest and most confidence-swinging knock of the evening in the fourth. She tucked a one-out, 3-2 pitch into the right field corner and ran it out for a triple to bring the crowd and her dugout to life. 
   Makayla Register, in the following at-bat, got her teammate home to score the tying run easily on a squeeze bunt. Pollock would have beaten the throw anyway, though Strickland's toss to the plate went off the glove of catcher Gracie Nix and allowed Register to move up to second on the play. The Raiders, however, fell just short of taking the lead after she advanced to third on a fielder's choice. Sapp was thrown out at first by a step on an infield bloop for the third out. 
   Small-ball tactics dominated the ebb and flow of both games in the series, and comprised most of the production for Madison County, which – almost without fail – set up a sacrifice bunt for every runner that reached base. 
   The visitors laid down a total of nine bunts and stole eight bags in the pair of games. Every inning with a run also involved a bunt of some description. And Madison County had just two extra-base hits all day, on leadoff doubles by Sam Minish in the first inning of game 1, and by Strickland in the second frame of game 2. 
   "We knew their speed would give us fits, and their ability to bunt and move runners," Thompson said. "We had to make plays, and we did, but we did a better job in the second game." 
   Jones battled through several jams in the second game to keep Madison County's scoring to just one, after giving up the lone run in the second inning when  Strickland reached on a double, advanced to third and scored on – go figure – two bunts. 
   But the strategy backfired on Madison County in the third inning, after Ernst got aboard on a West Laurens error, stole second and moved up to third on a passed ball. But Sam Minish squared around and popped the ball back to a charging Jones, who fired to second to double up the lead runner and get out of the jam. 
   She pitched around base hits to set down the side in the fourth, fifth and sixth. 
   West Laurens got little to go its way in the first game of the afternoon, which was dominated by Emma Strickland in the circle. The senior, whom the Raiders faced in the second round of the playoffs last year, struck out 12, and as in game two, gave up just four hits. 
   She kept the West Laurens order off-balance early with a terrific off-speed pitch and an excellent slider to complement her fastball and rise-ball. 
   "She carved us a little bit in the first game," Thompson said. "She was getting that outside pitch off the plate, and any time you get that outside pitch off the plate, no matter who you are, it's tough to hit. She runs it up there pretty good. She's really crafty. She's a senior who's been pitching for them for four years. We knew she'd be tough. She gave us fits up there at their place last year in the second round. And we just talked to the girls about not chasing that pitch off the plate and trying to hit earlier in the count and not getting behind in the count. And they did a much better job. They fouled off and hit some hard balls." 
   Strickland got the Raiders in order in four of the game's seven frames. When West Laurens hitters did get aboard, base running mistakes cost them opportunities to gain a foothold in the contest. 
   A poke single to right field by Perry similar to her go-ahead RBI in game 2 represented the first West Laurens hit of the afternoon. But she over-slid the bag at second on a sacrifice bunt by Camryn Stokes, and was tagged out on a snap throw back for the double play.
   In the sixth inning, McKenzie Maddox went off an outfield sign with a base hit that had the all the makings of the double, except a great throw off the rebound by Sam Minish in center field got her by multiple steps at second 
   West Laurens put together its best inning in seventh, but only got one run. Hudson Smith scored on Taylor Thompson's RBI single after drawing a walk and advancing on Makayla Register's double off the outfield fence. But the last-chance rally faded for the Raiders on a popout and a strikeout to conclude the game. 
   Sapp, the game 1 starting pitcher, held off Madison County threats in the first four innings, stranding runners in scoring position in the first two frames before a 1-2-3 third, headlined by a highlight grab on a collision with the outfield wall by Emma Riner for the second out. Her defense picked her up in a big way again after a one-out single in the fourth, turning a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning with the game still scoreless. 
   But the visitors found the scoreboard in the fifth, capitalizing on a Riley Smith single and an error to score the first run on a sacrifice fly. Madison County got two more as the inning wore on, bringing home runs on another fielder's choice play on an infield dribbler and a passed ball. 
   They added one more in the sixth, after Lily Crane stole second and reached third on a sac bunt after a single. She hustled home to score on Ernst's groundout. 
   Sapp gave up eight hits, but only one free pass on a hit batter. She struck out two. 
   The rubber match of the series was set for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Raider Sports Complex. 
   The state tournament, set to be contested Saturday and Sunday in Columbus, will follow a four-team, double-elimination format identical to that of NCAA regionals to decide a state champion among four remaining teams.