By RYAN HERMAN
MONROE –– Nearly 73 years ago Joe DiMaggio ran into Ken Keltner. On Friday, North Lincoln ran into Brittney Pickett.
The hard-throwing left-hander gave the Knights something they hadn’t seen this season, and by the time their once-hot bats figured her out it was too late as Monroe Sun Valley ended North Lincoln’s year with an 8-4 win to advance to this week’s best-of-three regional championship series against Enka.
DiMaggio, who holds the major league record for consecutive games with at least one hit at 56, was denied a 57th straight game on July 17, 1941, thanks in part to a pair of defensive gems by the Cleveland Indians third baseman.
The Knights entered Friday’s round of eight with a total of 28 hits and 19 runs in their second- and third-round wins. But Pickett’s style and speed kept them off balance and held them to four runs on five hits, all coming in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings.
“We have not faced a pitcher like Sun Valley’s this year. Sometimes you can kind of relate pitchers together –– pitchers that throw hard and out, pitchers that change speeds constantly, pitchers that work up and down or in and out –– but we haven’t faced a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher,” Knights coach Carlee Carpenter said. “She did a great job on the mound, and by the time we got a little bit of confidence it was a little too late.”
Pickett, who finished with eight strikeouts, was perfect through three as her team backed her with a 4-0 lead. Sydney Russell broke up the streak with a base hit up the middle to start the fourth, and a fielding error by Pickett allowed Macie Parker to reach for North Lincoln’s first threat.
Hollyn Franklin advanced the runners with a sac bunt, and Courtney Trickle followed with a two-run single that cut it to 4-2. But Pickett struck out Peyton Wilson, then Trickle was thrown out trying to take second to end the inning.
Emily Castro singled off Pickett in the fifth and took second on another error, but again Pickett ended the inning with a strikeout.
Down 8-2 and their chances dwindling, Russell again started an inning with a single in the sixth and was followed with a hit by Parker. Franklin reached on Sun Valley’s third error of the game, allowing Parker to score –– Russell was called out on interference when Parker’s batted ball hit her on the leg –– and Wilson doubled home Franklin to make it 8-4.
At that point the Knights (20-7) had four outs left in their season.
Pickett retired the next four she faced.
“We really haven’t seen anyone with that velocity,” Carpenter said.
As good as Pickett was in the pitching circle, the sophomore and her teammates were equally impressive in the box. The Spartans (22-4) had 15 hits, five for extra bases, and their 1 through 6 hitters each had a multi-hit game.
Carpenter replaced Franklin in the circle after two batters and with no outs in the second, and reliever Wilson allowed four hits and a walk to the first five batters of the decisive fourth that ultimately determined the outcome.
Wilson gave up three straight singles to load the bases, then walked in a run to make it 5-2. Abby Faircloth ripped a double into the corner in left to clear the bases, and from then on it was North Lincoln’s job to catch up.
The Knights couldn’t do it against Pickett’s fastball.
“I think tonight our girls gave a great effort,” Carpenter said. “Sun Valley played a great ballgame, defensively, hitting-wise, and their pitcher. They had it all. Everything they did was on point.”
The loss denied North Lincoln its first trip to the state semifinals since it was a 1A school in 2005. The Knights reached the double-elimination state 1A final four tournament at the Walnut Creek Softball Complex in Raleigh in back-to-back years in 2004 and 2005, finishing third out of four teams both years.
As a player at Bandys and in her first year as the Knights’ head coach, Carpenter has never played for a prep regional championship. Neither have her two seniors, Franklin and Jayden Maddox.
But with 13 set to return in 2015, Carpenter feels it could happen sooner rather than later.
“I hate to go home, and this is our last game, but then again this might be a spark that we could work with for next season,” Carpenter said. “I’m proud of our girls, very proud of them. But, this kind of gets me pumped for next year because I’m ready to go back at it. I want another shot.”
N. Lincoln 000 220 0––4 5 0
Sun Valley 121 400 x––8 15 3
Franklin, Wilson (2), Franck (6) and Trickle; Pickett and Adamcyzk. W––Pickett. L––Franklin.