It’s taken Carroll County 46 years to make a state final in any sport. For the fans in attendance Friday in the state semifinal at Liberty University, the clinching out probably felt twice as long.
Leading Deep Creek 3-2 with speedster Alli Brewer representing the tying run at third base, Nikki Smith fouled off 10 pitches with two strikes, eight in a row after drawing a full count. After facing every pitch in Carroll County ace’s Sydney Nester’s repertoire but one during the at bat, Smith grounded out to Nester for the final out, sending the Cavaliers to Saturday’s 4-A state championship game against Woodgrove.
”Both sides there was not going to give in. I didn’t want her to keep seeing the same pitch and or the same location, and with Sydney pitching she is able to do that,” Carroll County softball coach Rick Nester said. “If she is going to see the same pitch multiple times, she is going to put it in play. We had gotten her out earlier on the rise. I didn’t want to go to the rise and ball four when it got to a full count because if she lays off of it, it will be ball four. We kept mixing it. We would go in and we would go out, up and in a little bit, she just kept fouling it off. We even threw the change-up one time at her after several hard ones on a row. I thought if this is a strike, it will be over. Well, she fouls it off, too. I wasn’t going back to the change-up again because if she is going to hit it, she is going to have to hit something hard.”
Things didn’t look great for Carroll County (25-1) at the start as 4-A South champion Deep Creek (21-4) took a 1-0 lead in the first inning and pitcher Ryn Boelter retired the first six batters she faced. But the Cavaliers scored a run each in the third, fourth and fifth innings to go up 3-2. The Hornets got a run back in the bottom of the fifth before Nester closed the door during an incredibly tense seventh inning.
The Cavaliers did it thanks to flawless defense (no errors), clutch hitting (making the most of the team’s five for the game) and big hits all through the lineup.
“This is the first (state championship game) in school history in any sport. We have been in the semis with basketball, boys and girls, baseball, but this is the first time we have been in the finals,” Rick Nester said. “It’s just an awesome run these girls have had this year. You have a mixture of juniors, seniors, freshmen and sophomores, and every one of the levels has contributed. At some point every girl has won a game for us.”
After falling behind 1-0, Sydney Childress finally got the Cavaliers going with a leadoff double to left field. She took third after Caitlin Horton grounded out to the pitcher. Morgan Tompkins followed with an RBI grounder to score Childress, tying the game and changing the momentum of the contest.
Carroll took the lead for good in the fourth after Cheyenne Strickland opened the frame with a single to right and moved to second on Hannah Dalton’s sacrifice bunt. Emily Cook followed with a single up the middle to score Strickland, putting the Cavs in front 2-1.
And while Carroll’s bats were finally working, it was a couple of plays in the field that preserved the victory. In the bottom of the fourth, Deep Creek had runners on second and third with two outs. Skye Seutter hit what looked like a bloop single to shallow left field that would have easily plated both runners. But Strickland took off from her shortstop position in a backward stride before turning at the last second to make a falling catch, ending the threat and the inning.
“That is a two-run play. She took two runs away from them on that play,” Rick Nester said. “At first I didn’t think she was going to get to it, but after she turned I thought she was going to have a shot at it. That is the same as a two-run home run that she took away from them right there.”
Strickland swears the fall at the end wasn’t for added drama.
“I was trying my hardest to go get it, and once I saw it was right over my shoulder I knew that I was going to have it,” she said. “I just didn’t know I was going to fall at the end. That was unexpected.”
The Cavs added what proved to be a critical insurance run in the top of the fifth. After Caitlin Horton reached on an error, Gracie Davidson mashed an RBI double off the center field fence to make it 3-1.
Brewer went 3-for-4 and stole five bases for Deep Creek. She led off the bottom half of the fifth with a single and scored on Belter’s RBI single to center. With one out, Carroll catcher Caitlin Horton made another huge defensive play, gunning down Belter at second on a stolen base attempt. Nester fired in strike three on the next pitch to end the inning with the Cavs still leading 3-2.
“The big swing was in the fifth when Caitlin threw the girl out at second base. That was huge there,” Rick Nester said. “I already knew in the fifth inning the number one would be coming up in the seventh if we got 1-2-3, 1-2-3, she was the last one to come up. So we were trying to make sure, hoping we could get to that point, because knowing if she is on base she is in scoring position with one pitch. She had 36 stolen bases on the season.”
Sydney Nester sat the Hornets down in order in the sixth, setting up the dramatic final inning. She got Alyssa Dixon to pop up and Seutter to strike out before Brewer reached on a two-out bunt single. Brewer would go on to steal second and take third on a wild pitch, setting up Smith’s monumental, foul-filled at bat. Nester said she has never had to battle off a hitter like Smith, but the large throng of screaming Carroll County fans helped pump her up.
“I just knew I had to focus and do what I do. And I knew if she did hit the ball that my defense was going to back me up. So I felt comfortable,” Nester said. “That was probably the first time I have ever had that type of atmosphere on me, but I just tried to let that not bother me and just throw my pitch. It was super cool.”
With the win, Carroll advances to Saturday’s state championship game against Woodgrove, 6-0 winners in Friday’s other state semifinal against Grafton. Game time is set for 10 a.m. Saturday at Liberty.
Carroll Co. 001 110 0 – 3 5 0
Deep Creek 100 010 0 – 2 8 4
Nester and Horton (CC); Boelter and Burgee (DC). WP – Nester. LP – Boelter. 2B – Davidson, Childress (CC).
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN