By RYAN HERMAN
Mike Freeman’s only message to his East Lincoln softball team heading into the conference tournament was win, no matter how it happens.
The Mustangs heeded his words in the opening round.
Booth Braswell went 3-for-3 and scored three runs, Carly Johnson went 4-for-4 with three RBIs and East Lincoln overcame its own blunders to top Maiden 8-6 Tuesday in the first round of the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference tournament at Lincolnton’s Betty G. Ross Park.
The Mustangs, who will face West Lincoln, a 13-3 winner over West Caldwell, in a semifinal at 5 p.m. here on Thursday, committed four errors, which led to three unearned runs.
According to team statistics found on Maxpreps.com, fourth-seeded East Lincoln (13-7) entered with a .954 fielding percentage.
“It was ugly, but we won,” Freeman said. “I’ll take a win any day, no matter how you can get it.”
Three straight RBI doubles by Johnson, Kaelyn Edwards and Payton Mills in the third, plus Maddie Hatfield’s run on a sacrifice by Booth plus a throwing error in the first staked the Mustangs to an early 4-0 lead. But three errors in the top of the fourth aided Maiden in getting them all back.
Booth committed two of the miscues –– one throwing and one fielding –– and Ava Hicks misplayed a ball at second base to stick Johnson with a pair of unearned runs in the inning.
Mollie Sigmon’s RBI double to the fence scored a run, and Evelynn Schroeder’s single plated Sigmon to make it 4-2 –– the only two runs in the fourth charged to Johnson.
“I wish we would have played better in the field, but we played good enough,” Freeman said. “We hit the ball well enough to score enough runs to win the ballgame and that’s what counts.”
Johnson, a senior who will pitch for Division III Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga., next spring, gave up 10 hits, walked one and threw four wild pitches, but was able to deliver a pitch when needed.
After helping her own cause with a two-run single in the bottom of the fourth, Johnson worked her way out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, tossed a 1-2-3 sixth, and with the tying run at the plate in the seventh, she retired Williams on strikes to improve to 11-7 this season.
“I think (Johnson) is pitching sometimes to get the batters off balance and when she needs to, she can find that pitch to get the strike or to get the out,” Freeman said. “She has been our rock this year on the mound.”
Taylor Wilson doubled in the fourth ahead of Johnson’s hit, and plated Braswell in the sixth on a sac fly. Braswell tripled to the corner in right, scoring Hatfield, who reached on a fielder’s choice and saved at least three runs in the fifth with her defense in center field.
Sarah Thompson went 2-for-3, and Mills went 2-for-3 as the Mustangs pounded out 13 hits.
Carsyn Patton went 3-for-4 with a run, Brandi Sigmon had two RBI doubles and Schroeder added two singles to lead the fifth-seeded Blue Devils (6-12).
Those 13 hits are what East Lincoln will need, Freeman said, to knock off the league champions in Thursday’s semifinals, and to fulfill its goal of winning the tournament.
The tournament championship –– Bandys and Bunker Hill are in the other semifinal –– will follow the completion of those two games.
“That was our goal –– not to worry about that other play-in game –– we just want to win three games and be done and have a good showing in the state playoffs,” said Freeman, referring to a possible one-game playoff with Bunker Hill to determine state playoff seeding, depending on how the league tournament plays out. “If you don’t put hits together, you’re not going to get runs, because (the Rebels are) not going to give them to you. They give nothing for free. You’ve got to earn it.”