When the North Lincoln Lady Knights (20-8) take the field against East Surry (23-3) on Saturday, it wonâ€™t be the first time theyâ€™ve faced off.
With number two pitcher senior Nicole Hall on the mound and doing an admirable job, the Knights fell to the Cardinals 2-1 in their previous meeting.
More importantly the Pumpkin Center-based team was allowed an opportunity to see both of the Cardinalsâ€™ top pitchers: Karli Love and Brooke Honeycut.
In a wise coaching move, North Lincoln head coach Rick Brown didnâ€™t want to reveal too much to the Lady Cards. The rationale? Because he believed there was more than a slim chance they would meet in the 1A Final Four.
Not only did Brown not pitch junior Nicole Baxter (17-6, 1.50 ERA), but he didnâ€™t allow top hitters Courtney Feldon (.450 BA) or Jenna Torbert (.440) an at-bat, instead opting to play freshmen in an effort to get them experience.
While East Surry wasnâ€™t allowed to get a good feel for the Knights. Brown was able to compile a lot of information pertaining to the Cardinals.
â€œTheyâ€™re fundamentally a solid team. Their pitchers didnâ€™t walk anybody and they play good defense,â€ Brown said. â€œUp and down their lineup, theyâ€™re a threat.â€
The Lady Knights and the Cardinals are on a roll. North Lincoln swept through the Southern Foothillsâ€™ Conference Tournament en route to a championship, reeling off three straight playoff victories over Hayesville, Swain County and Cherryville.
East Surry, the number two seed from the Northwest Conference, beat North Moore 14-1 in the second round of the 1A State Playoffs. The leading hitter for the Lady Cards is Haley Burge, who hit nine homers on the season.
Both teams have jelled at just the right time, but both schools will face the challenge of the grueling tournament schedule this year.
Two teams are going to play three games on Saturday and two teams will be eliminated in the Final Fourâ€™s opening day.
â€œIt will be very tough, except for the team that wins their first two games. Theyâ€™ll have a definite advantage on Sunday,â€ Brown said. â€œWhoever wins those first two games will get to go back to the hotel and rest at 5 p.m., while the other two teams will be out there playing.â€
Despite the strenuous schedule, Brown knows his teamâ€™s fan support will help.
â€œIâ€™m just really appreciative of all the fan support weâ€™ve had this year, both in the school and outside of the school,â€ he said.
Been there, done that
While the scheduling favors no team in particular, the experience factor favors North Lincoln.
The Lady Knights return as the only participant from last yearâ€™s Final Four.
â€œI think weâ€™ll know more what to expect. I donâ€™t think weâ€™ll be as intimidated by any of the teams,â€ Brown said. â€œIn the back of our mind last year, we thought we were a little bit young and were a first-year school. That hasnâ€™t been the case this year.â€
Brownâ€™s ace, Nicole Baxter, agrees with her coach.
â€œWeâ€™re really confident because weâ€™ve been there and know what to expect and the other teams donâ€™t,â€ she said. â€œBut at the same time weâ€™re not over-confident, thinking weâ€™re going to win it all.â€
â€œWe believe weâ€™re going to win it, but weâ€™re not underestimating the other three teams,â€ Baxter quickly added.
One marked area of improvement has been the Lady Knightsâ€™ hitting, which has really picked up over the past three weeks.
â€œI think the first part of the season itâ€™s been the top part of the lineup or the bottom thatâ€™s been hitting,â€ said Jenna Torbert, a sophomore. â€œNow weâ€™re realizing what we can accomplish as a team and weâ€™re supporting each other more.â€
The Lady Knights werenâ€™t cheering against each other; they were just more concerned with their own individual success and not focused as much on team goals.
â€œWhen you step up to plate and you feel like you have the entire team behind you, cheering for you,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s a lot easier and you have more confidence to get a hit,â€ Torbert said.
Notes: The North Johnston Panthers are the only number one seeded team to play in this yearâ€™s Final Four, beating North Brunswick 1-0 in the second round.
The Panthers are led at the plate and on the mound by Candace Evans. Evans was 18-2 with a 0.55 ERA and batted .443.
Theyâ€™re making their third trip to the Final Four since 2000.
Gates County is led by Whitney Perry, who went 17-4, on the mound. Ashley Rowsey batted .396 on the season for the Red Barons.
by John Mark Brooks