By RUSSELL TURNER – herald editor
Greene County and Newton County softball fans had to wait one more day to see their teams battle it out in Round 3 of the MHSAA 4A Playoffs after inclement weather came into play on Friday. The wait paid off as Saturday’s matchup between the Wildcats and Cougars lived up to the hype with GCHS claiming a 4-3 extra-inning victory at home to take a 1-0 series lead. to the best of three.
Lilly Rau’s flare to short left field ricocheted off the glove of one of the three Newton County defensemen who had converged on the play, allowing fellow freshman Kambrie Lawrence to score from third for the winning run. . Rau came to the plate with two outs after a sacrifice bunt by senior Breeze Jordan had put the go-ahead run on third base for the Lady Cats and Newton County had intentionally walked Lawrence and sophomore Erin. Meadows to load the bases. The Cougars’ move worked as planned, as a forceful groundout by eighth grader Addy Tungett resulted in a fielder’s selection at the plate for out number two. Rau fell into a quick 0-2 hole after a swinging strike and a foul, but on the third pitch she saw she did enough to create a difficult play that turned out to be one of the few the visitors couldn’t make.
“It was a tough win against a really good team,” GCHS head coach Kyle Long said. “We knew it was going to be a close game and we told the team it would come down to one play or one hit and it did.”
“I’m so proud of them for believing in each other and finding a way to win.”
While the game came down to one final play, there were plenty of other big ones on both sides during the 8-inning affair. Many of them came from the pitching circle where Taylor Brewer showed a lot of toughness, struggling in a game in which he wasn’t in his prime.
Brewer struggled with his control at times, particularly early on. He walked four Cougars in the game, but after giving up four hits and one run in the first two innings, he settled in and allowed just three more hits the rest of the way. Brewer didn’t record a single strikeout, but he did throw some big pitches at key moments down the stretch. Two of the biggest came in the eighth inning. Per playoff rules, the visitors started the inning with a runner on second base and quickly sent her to third. But, Brewer got high fly singles from each of the next two batters to strand the runner and give her team a chance to win in the bottom of the inning.
“Taylor didn’t have his best stuff like he had in the last 3 or 4 outings,” Long said. “But he fought against it and that’s the sign of a great pitcher.”
“You won’t always be at your best, but can you fight back and help your team win? Taylor did exactly that and got out of trouble time and time again.”
GCHS started the game on a high note. After keeping the mighty Cougars off the board in the top of the first, freshman Zamiah Knight threw a 1-1 pitch over the left fielder’s head for a standup double. His classmate, Shanna Johnson, played her part with a groundout to left infield to push Knight to third. Brewer then stepped up to the plate and helped her cause with a hard hit to shortstop for the RBI.
Newton County responded with three singles and a sacrifice bunt to drive in a run in the top of the second. A nice play by Jordan at third and a nice pitch by Brewer to induce a jumper to left field prevented a big tackle and kept the game tied at one apiece.
A leadoff double and sacrifice fly gave the visitors the lead in the top of the third, but GCHS responded with three hits and two runs in the bottom of the fourth to get back on top 3-2. Tugett’s single drove in Lawrence, who had led off the inning with one hit. Senior CC Spiers singled off two batters later to drive in Meadows.
Newton County tied it again at three apiece in the top of the sixth. A fly ball into foul territory to short right field was good for the second out of the inning, but allowed the baserunner to bunt and score from third.
Both teams fell in order in the seventh, leading to extra innings. And, in a back-and-forth game in which both teams had made solid plays, it felt appropriate that Rau was the one to finally catch the break that decided the outcome.
“Lily has been huge for us,” Long said. “Everyone forgets that she’s a freshman.”
“From the running back who threw for a big out on the first, to putting him on the line with two strikes to make the winning play happen, this is how she’s fought all year for us. I am so proud of her and excited for her future on our show.”
With a win in game one, GCHS is now one win away from a trip to the South State Championship round. But Long and his team know there’s no time to relax. Game 2 of the series is scheduled for Monday at 6 pm in Decatur and the 24-4 Cougars aren’t going to sit down without a fight.
“They are a very good team with a proud tradition,” Long added. “They will give us their best chance on Monday.”
“We will have to play very well again to win it, but I am confident in our children that we will do it.”