By RYAN HERMAN
DENVER –– Lincoln Charter School got caught last season thinking ahead, so this year the only thing on the Eagles’ minds is the next game.
That next game is also the farthest they’ve ever been.
Lincoln Charter’s softball team will hop into multiple vehicles before noon today, and make the 230-odd-mile journey to Murphy to take on Hiwassee Dam at 5 p.m. in the fourth round of the NCHSAA state 1A playoffs.
The quarterfinal round is the deepest the Eagles have ever gone, and this year’s run is nothing more than a lesson learned from last year’s disappointing first-round exit.
“We learned to take it one game at a time this year,” junior second baseman Hannah Taylor said.
What Taylor was referring to was the Eagles’ disappointing loss to East Wilkes after winning 21 straight games heading into the state playoffs.
Lincoln Charter lost its first game of the season in 2013, and, although a wildcard in the state playoffs because of its classification as an independent, was expected to advance to the next round and beyond.
The Eagles bought into the hype, which proved to be short-lived.
“We had a lot of pressure on us,” junior third baseman Kyra Johnson said. “We were expected to go far, to win it all last year, so we were a little too into our heads last year.”
The defeat hurt so much that the team couldn’t wait to get back on the field in 2014.
“From our experiences we’ve learned not to go in thinking we can beat a team,” Taylor said. “We weren’t taking it one game at a time. We were thinking about three games (ahead).”
In their last five games, the Eagles (19-4) have showed they’ve learned plenty from their last few losses.
Since the state playoff loss at East Wilkes –– which is still alive and playing today in the other 1A West quarterfinal game –– Lincoln Charter has four losses this season, all to 4A schools.
It cruised through Southern Piedmont 1A Conference play with a 12-0 record, and suffered its last loss on May 1 in a 2-1 home loss to Charlotte Olympic.
But since then, the Eagles have been lights out.
Until Tuesday’s 10-3 win over Murphy, Lincoln Charter had pitched four straight shutouts, and in its last five games has outscored its opponents 72-3.
And it’s all because the Eagles know they’re not as invincible as they thought this time last year.
“They didn’t like the feeling that it left with them, and they didn’t like what came after it, so they kind of have a determination to not let that happen again,” Lincoln Charter coach Taylor Putnam said of each of the last five losses.
“I see a different look in their eyes the last couple of games.”
Hiwassee Dam (22-2), located in the far southwest corner of the state in Cherokee County near the Tennessee and Georgia borders, has won nine in a row, but that’s about all the Eagles know.
At this point, all the teams left standing are good, and that’s all each team needs to know.
“We’re just going into this game like any other game. We don’t know much about this team, just what we’ve heard from other teams. So we’re going into it, playing our best, doing what we can do,” Johnson said.
Assuming their game ends today before North Lincoln’s fourth round game –– the Knights play at Monroe Sun Valley at 7 p.m. –– if the Eagles win, they’ll become the first Lincoln County softball team since West Lincoln in 1995 to reach the final four.
Their current run, which has been a mixture of blowout wins and humbling losses to a quartet of 4A schools, all started with a defeat.
“When you lose, you learn more than when you win. I think that’s a taste of them losing last year, and it’s still in their mouth. They’re ready to go after it, and not let it happen again,” Putnam said.
“It’s made us a better program. I hate that that happened, but if it helps us this year, it was worth it in the end.”