FRANKLIN — Pepperell scored an early run and had chances to add on but couldn’t come through with a timely hit when they needed it most while Heard County was able to grab the momentum in the third and never give it back to send the Lady Dragons to a season-ending loss on Wednesday.
The Lady Dragons scored a run in the top of the first to take a quick lead in the decisive Game 3 of their Class AA State Tournament first-round series, but after stranding two runners in scoring position in the top of the third, host Heard County exploded for four runs in the bottom of the inning and never surrendered control of the game from that point on to eventually earn a 9-1 victory to clinch the series and a berth in the second round next week.
Pepperell (15-8) got on the board in the top of the first inning on an RBI-groundout by Morgan Willingham to bring home Ansley Farmer. After Heard County (20-9) tied the game at 1-1 with a sac fly in the bottom of the second, the Lady Dragons had a chance to retake the lead in the third as Trista Ely and Farmer reached on singles and eventually moved to second and third with one out, but two quick fly-outs ended the threat.
Heard County then got their deep lineup rolling in the bottom of the third with a pair of solo homers by Janiyah Strong and Mackenzie White, an RBI-triple by Zekylah Boyd and an infield hit to drive in a run by Courtney Cannon to take a 5-1 lead.
The score remained the same into the fifth when Heard County was able to put together another four-run rally to end the game via the mercy rule. Aubree Ussery singled to lead off the inning, Hannah Wright followed with a double, Boyd drove in a run on an infield hit and then Cannon had the deciding blow as she crushed a three-run homer to right-center field to close out the game and the series.
Pepperell head coach Jeff Rickman said it wasn’t the way his team wanted to wrap up the 2021 season, but he was proud of the way his team competed despite the result against Heard County, the defending Class AA state champions.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted today, but I’m so proud of our kids,” said Rickman. “It is an honor to be their coach. They battled in this series, and they battled all year. We got a lead today, but we just couldn’t find that clutch hit to score a couple more runs.
“Heard County is a really good team and can really hit the ball. Our girls competed though. I’ve told them I would put them up against any team in the state because they have a heart for the game and are going to give it everything they have. To fight like this to a third game against the defending state champs tells you what kind of group we have.”
Farmer finished with two hits and a run scored to lead the Pepperell offense for the day. Ely and Chloe Jones also added a hit, and Willingham drove in a run. Chloe Stroud was the other Lady Dragon to reach base in the contest with a walk.
Jones took the loss in the circle after pitching four-plus innings and allowing nine runs (eight earned) on 11 hits.
The Heard County offense got contributions from several players with Boyd and Cannon boasting the top bats in the season-extending win. Boyd finished 3-for-3 with a triple, two RBIs and two runs scored, and Cannon added two hits, including a homer, with four RBIs. Wright was 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored, and Ussery and Taylor Bailey also had hits to go along with Strong and White’s solo homers.
Lily Rae Fulford earned the win for the Lady Braves by pitching five innings and allowing one run on four hits while striking out one.
The two teams got to a third game by splitting a doubleheader on Tuesday afternoon as Pepperell won Game 1, 9-6, and Heard County bounced back for a 13-2 victory in Game 2.
Willingham led the Lady Dragons in Game 1 with two hits, including a homer, to go with four RBIs. Ely also had a hit and two RBIs, Chloe Stroud contributed an RBI-double, Jones drove in a run and had two hits and Farmer also had two hits and a run scored. Jones also earned the win in Game 1 by pitching a complete game (seven innings) and allowing six runs (five earned) on 10 hits while striking out four.
Heard County rallied in Game 2 by scoring eight runs in the first two innings and then continuing to add on to earn the win and a split. White finished 4-for-5 in the contest with a double and five RBIs, Ussery added three hits and three RBIs and Strong also had a homer, an RBI and four runs scored. Emma Helton contributed a double and two RBIs, and Wright and Boyd each drove in a run. Fulford was the winning pitcher by throwing 4 2-3 innings and allowing two runs (one earned) on five hits and striking out four.
Rickman said he hated to see this season come to an end especially for his seniors, but he believes they have laid the foundation for continued success for the Pepperell program.
“We had great leadership this year from our seniors,” said Rickman. “These seniors have done a lot for this program. They have been a part of four trips to the state tournament and two Sweet 16 appearances. We will miss them next year for sure, but we have a lot of youth coming back that got a taste of what it takes to compete at such a high level. I’m looking forward to seeing what next year’s group can do.”
In other postseason softball action involving local teams:
Coosa, Darlington fall in first round
It was a tough draw and a tough conclusion to the season for both Coosa and Darlington as both teams saw their 2021 seasons come to a close in the first round of their respective classification’s state tournaments.
The Lady Eagles (10-9) traveled to Bremen on Tuesday to square off against Region 5-AA champion Bremen in the first round of the Class AA State Tournament and were swept as they lost Game 1, 10-2, and fell in Game 2, 3-0.
Darlington (6-13) also made a road trip in the first round of the Class A Private State Tournament and came away with a pair of losses to end their year as Savannah Christian won Game 1, 8-2, and Game 2, 15-6.