The tension lasted until the final out of the final inning. The battle never stopped and the cheers never subsided. In the end, though, North Pike softball fell one run short.
The Jaguars couldn’t overcome Sumrall in a decisive Game 3 of the south state finals, finishing on the wrong end of a 3-2 nailbiter Saturday evening in Summit.
The visiting Bobcats (27-7) opened the scoring with a run in the first inning and held that 1-0 lead before North Pike (21-14) grabbed two runs in the bottom of the fourth. Two Jaguar errors in the next inning, however, led to a pair of Sumrall scores, and the Bobcats held on to reach the state finals for the first time.
“We battled. We fought. Sometimes, the ball doesn’t bounce our way,” North Pike head coach Sonya Wallace said. “Today, it just didn’t go our way.”
Freshman Ann Elise Duncan, after pitching a shutout in Game 2 of the series Friday to extend North Pike’s season, took the mound again Saturday and delivered a sterling performance. She surrendered three runs (one earned) on four hits in 6.1 innings before senior Averi Paden — who pitched Game 1 but started at first base in this one — entered to finish the seventh.
The Jaguars’ offense tallied five hits but never truly broke through against a pair of Sumrall pitchers. Sophomore Ashlyn Burkhalter was perfect for 3.1 innings before allowing two hits and giving way to Avery Smith. The freshman allowed one inherited run to score but shut the door down the stretch.
“We just couldn’t ever seem to make the adjustment (at the plate),” Wallace said. “We got out on that front foot, our hands were already out and we were popping up.”
Paden went 2 for 3 with two doubles to lead North Pike. Natalie Deer, Sarah Lawrence and Emilie Williams had the Jaguars’ other hits. All four of Sumrall’s knocks came from the top of the order — Anna Grace Shows twice, Shaylee Ingram and Ella Robertson.
Shows led off the game with a single, advanced to second on a passed ball and scored on the throw after Robertson beat out an infield single. North Pike had no answers early, as Burkhalter retired the first 10 hitters she faced.
Deer started a rally with a sharp single past third base in the fourth, then stole second and scored on Paden’s line drive, which rolled to the right-center wall for a double. With two outs, Lawrence roasted a double to left, plating her cousin and giving the Jaguars a 2-1 lead.
It didn’t last, though. Londyn Robertson reached with one out in the fifth as a hard grounder skipped away from Deer’s glove at third base. She stole second and scored on Shows’ single to center, with no throw after a misplay by Alaia Crossley in center. Ingram followed with a sacrifice bunt, but nobody was covering third on the play, and Ellyn Williams’ throw to the bag skipped to the fence and allowed Shows to score the go-ahead run.
“Ellyn got there, covered the bunt, and usually we’ve got someone there (at third),” Wallace said. “The outfield was playing deep because (Ingram) could hit. … We just didn’t make the coverage there.”
Smith — who had been seldom used this season but dazzled in 5.1 relief innings Friday — worked a perfect fifth and escaped after Paden’s two-out double off the wall in the sixth. Paden entered for Duncan with two on and one out in the seventh and forced a groundout that moved runners to second and third. Emilie Williams then made a brilliant diving catch on a line drive, saving two runs and keeping the Jaguars afloat.
Williams delivered a two-out single in the bottom half to give North Pike one more chance, but it wasn’t to be. Ellyn Williams’ hard grounder to third was fielded and thrown cleanly for the final out. The scrappy seventh-grader dropped to a knee past first base and was consoled by assistant coach Jordan Adams as Sumrall gathered in celebration near the pitching circle.
Dry eyes were few and far between as the Jaguars huddled for the final time. It was the final high school game for four seniors — the Nicholls State signee Paden, as well as outfielders Sydney Williams, Allei Reagan and Crossley. All four made key impacts throughout the season, headlined by Paden’s 1.32 ERA in 100.2 innings in the circle.
“I’m proud of my seniors and all that they’ve done for us and the leadership they’ve given us this year,” Wallace said. “They’ll definitely be missed.”
The margins are so thin on this playoff stage. All three games between the Jaguars and Bobcats were decided by one or two plays in big moments. Ultimately, the lack of defensive continuity kept North Pike from becoming a championship team — with youth across the diamond and an injury to third baseman Layne Greer forcing a late-season shuffle, a couple plays here and there weren’t made when they needed to be.
After the Jaguars lost four seniors and a transfer from 2021’s state runner-up squad, this season was a baptism by fire in some ways. In the biggest game of the year, North Pike had a freshman pitcher and catcher, a sophomore shortstop and a seventh-grade second baseman. Those will be core pieces in the future, and they set the tone with how hard they fought in 2022.
“They had the determination to come out here and prove people wrong,” Wallace said. “I have great respect for this group because they worked hard, and to get to this point, that says a lot about the girls.”