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NC 1A Final Four Preview

When the North Lincoln Lady Knights (20-8) take the field against East Surry (23-3) on Saturday, it won’t be the first time they’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 Cardinals’ top pitchers: Karli Love and Brooke Honeycut.
In a wise coaching move, North Lincoln head coach Rick Brown didn’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 didn’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 wasn’t allowed to get a good feel for the Knights. Brown was able to compile a lot of information pertaining to the Cardinals.
“They’re fundamentally a solid team. Their pitchers didn’t walk anybody and they play good defense,” Brown said. “Up and down their lineup, they’re a threat.”
The Lady Knights and the Cardinals are on a roll. North Lincoln swept through the Southern Foothills’ 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 Four’s opening day.
“It will be very tough, except for the team that wins their first two games. They’ll have a definite advantage on Sunday,” Brown said. “Whoever 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.”
Despite the strenuous schedule, Brown knows his team’s fan support will help.
“I’m just really appreciative of all the fan support we’ve had this year, both in the school and outside of the school,” 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 year’s Final Four.
“I think we’ll know more what to expect. I don’t think we’ll be as intimidated by any of the teams,” Brown said. “In the back of our mind last year, we thought we were a little bit young and were a first-year school. That hasn’t been the case this year.”
Brown’s ace, Nicole Baxter, agrees with her coach.
“We’re really confident because we’ve been there and know what to expect and the other teams don’t,” she said. “But at the same time we’re not over-confident, thinking we’re going to win it all.”
“We believe we’re going to win it, but we’re not underestimating the other three teams,” Baxter quickly added.
One marked area of improvement has been the Lady Knights’ hitting, which has really picked up over the past three weeks.
“I think the first part of the season it’s been the top part of the lineup or the bottom that’s been hitting,” said Jenna Torbert, a sophomore. “Now we’re realizing what we can accomplish as a team and we’re supporting each other more.”
The Lady Knights weren’t cheering against each other; they were just more concerned with their own individual success and not focused as much on team goals.
“When you step up to plate and you feel like you have the entire team behind you, cheering for you,” she said. “It’s a lot easier and you have more confidence to get a hit,” Torbert said.

Notes: The North Johnston Panthers are the only number one seeded team to play in this year’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.
They’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

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