SPRING HILL – For a few hours on Wednesday evening, Richmond County sports fans were all Wildcats.
When it was announced that the softball team from Ellerbe Middle School, the smallest school in the Southeastern Middle School Athletic Conference (SEMSAC), had defeated defending conference champion Spring Hill Middle 8-5 in the conference tournament title game, coaches, parents and student athletes from Rockingham Middle, Hamlet Middle, Cordova Middle and even Scotland County’s Carver Middle hit social media to congratulate the Lady Wildcats on the history-making victory.
It was the program’s first ever conference title and even its first title visit. Putting her own spin on a classic William Shakespeare quote, Ellerbe coach Angel Baker noted the relevance of the small school’s accomplishment.
“We may be small, but we are mighty,” Baker exclaimed after the game. “They made history today. The girls worked as a team and I couldn’t be happier for them.”
The win concluded perhaps the most unpredictable and exciting season of softball that any area fan could have imagined or hoped for. When the regular season concluded, the SEMSAC found itself extremely top heavy with four teams tying for first place with matching 7-2 records heading into the conference tournament.
Joining Ellerbe and Spring Hill at the top of the standings were Carver Middle and Rockingham Middle and last week’s semi-final games rightfully featured those squads as the final four.
Like their high school counterparts, who will be competing in the fourth round of the NCHSAA 3A softball playoffs on Friday, the Scotland County middle school teams have been in control of the area’s middle school softball landscape for the last couple of years. This meant that if Rockingham or Ellerbe wanted to win it all, they would likely have to defeat both of the very good Scotland County programs in back-to-back games to do it.
The Lady Wildcats managed a 9-6 victory over Carver on their home field, but the Lady Spartans took down Rockingham 15-5 in just five innings setting up a David vs. Goliath-esque title game at Spring Hill Middle.
Leadoff batter Kaylee Connor got things started for the Lady Wildcats in the top of the first when she sent an 0-2 pitch to shallow center for a single. Stellar Spring Hill pitcher Ava Gale retired the next two batters leaving Connor on first with just one out left in play.
Then a game of chess ensued. With her batters chasing pitches outside of the strike zone and the umpire’s strike zone being a little tight, Baker instructed her batters from the dugout to only swing if it’s “perfect” as the close pitches over the corners did not seem to be getting called strike.
As a result, Ellerbe’s next three batters, Madeline Carriker, Lilly Hill and Emma Monroe, all drew walks with only one swing of the bat occurring from the three batters combined. Monroe’s walk plated Connor giving the Lady Wildcats an early 1-0 lead.
Not to be outdone, Gale responded. With the bases loaded and two outs, Gale could only escape the inning by giving the Lady Wildcats exactly what they wanted – “perfect” pitches to swing at. She did just that, zipping three straight pitches by Zoe Isaac for the third out of the inning.
Helping her own cause, Gale reached on a bunt to start the bottom of the inning and advanced to second on an Ellerbe error. An Arianna Brigman single sent Gale to third, but Brigman intentionally got caught in a rundown and was tagged out headed to second, which freed up Gale to sprint home to quickly erase Spring Hill’s deficit.
Another fielding error by Ellerbe allowed Haydynn Lowery to reach first and she would make the Wildcats pay for the miscue. After advancing to third, Lowery coaxed the Lady Wildcats into attempting a pickoff play. With Connor, Ellerbe’s catcher, distracted and nobody covering the plate, Lowery stole home for the go-ahead score.
The second inning once again started with an Ellerbe single, this time from Ashton Terry. Terry advanced to second on a Spring Hill error, but was picked off when later attempting to steal third. Gale, now consistently attacking the strike zone, retired the next two Ellerbe batters in order.
Spring Hill added to its lead with Brigman once again at the plate. After the Lady Spartans loaded the bases on a walk and a pair of singles, Brigman reached on another Ellerbe fielding error allowing another run to score extending the home team’s advantage to 3-1 after two innings.
Gale and Lady Wildcat pitcher Carley McCormick made easy work of their opponents in the third resulting in a quick and uneventful inning.
Things went from bad to worse for the Lady Wildcats. Ellerbe came up empty again in the top of the fourth and Spring Hill used a Neffateria McCutchen walk and a pair of singles from Gale and Brigman to add another run to the scoreboard. That’s when the momentum began to shift.
With her team trailing 4-1, Connor drew a walk to start the top of the fifth inning. Macie King went down swinging for the first out of the inning – Gale’s eighth strikeout of the game at that point. Next McCormick was hit by a pitch, putting Ellerbe runners on first and second with only one out.
With Carriker at the plate for the Lady Wildcats, an 0-1 pitch from Gale got away from Brigman allowing the runners to move to second and third. Moments later, a short infield hit by Carriker resulted in two runs after a Spring Hill misfire on the putout attempt. Gale maintained her composure and recorded two more strikeouts to get out of the inning, but Ellerbe had new life trailing only by one at 4-3.
Spring Hill answered with an RBI-single in the bottom of the fifth inning from Jayden Malloy and after five complete, the Lady Spartans led 5-3.
The top of the sixth inning started and ended with Grace Hill as the Lady Wildcats sent their entire lineup to the plate resulting in a 5-run rally.
After G. Hill drew a walk and Abby Robinson reached on an error, Spring Hill opted for a pitching change. With Lowery now in the circle for the Lady Spartans, Connor and Macie King hit back-to-back singles with King’s shot to center plating two runs to tie the game at 5-all.
Lowery struck out McCormick and Carriker but walked L. Hill to load the bases. Monroe then drew a bases loaded walk putting Ellerbe ahead 6-5. Isaac added to the Ellerbe lead when she brought home both L. Hill and King with a two-RBI single to center field.
A pop out by G. Hill ended the inning, but not before the Lady Wildcats turned a two-run deficit to a three-run advantage at 8-5 with just an inning and-a-half to play.
Spring Hill managed a single base runner in the bottom of the sixth and both teams were retired in order in the seventh resulting in the Ellerbe victory.
McCormick finished the day with 10 strikeouts – 119 on the season. Monroe, King, Isaac and Carriker each had two RBI for the Lady Wildcats. Gale finished the afternoon with 12 strikeouts in just five innings for the Lady Spartans. Brigman (2) and Malloy (1) recorded RBI for Spring Hill.
The Lady Wildcats finished the season 9-2 and improve to 14-7 in Baker’s two years at the helm.
“I am so proud of my girls,” Baker said of her team. “They have put in the work. They have used their talent and continued to hone their skills. They are a highly talented group of young ladies that was determined to give it their all no matter what happened. They refused to hang their heads and kept a positive attitude.
“They reflected on their errors and corrected them. But most of all they believed in themselves. My job as a coach is not only to believe in them and set high expectations, but it is to make sure they believe in themselves and set high expectations for themselves. Go Wildcats!”