East Hall High softball coach Josh Joiner said earlier this week that his squad had played well below its potential in its two losses to East Jackson High during the regular season.
And following the teams’ meeting in the first round of the Class 3A playoff Wednesday night at East Hall Park in Gainesville, Joiner maintained the Lady Vikings still didn’t produce their best performance against the Lady Eagles.
But they did enough to ensure they’d have another chance to show their best stuff.
After committing a series of errors to squander an early 4-0 lead in Game 2, top-seeded East Hall erupted in the top of the seventh inning to claim a 9-5 victory and a trip to the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season.
“In our losses this year, we’d have a big inning and then melt down,” Joiner said. “It kind of looked like that tonight. But the girls just responded. They didn’t lay down and give up, which was something they had done in the past.”
Macy Banks started both games in the circle for the Lady Vikings (20-9), pitching more than 12 total innings and limiting runs when fielding miscues occurred. She also went 4 for 8 at the plate with an RBI and scored the go-ahead run on a hit by Aaliyah Stringer, who came off the bench in East Hall’s 6-3, Game 1 win before recording two doubles and a walk in the clincher.
“When I crossed the plate, I was just happy that we were back ahead,” Banks said. “We just needed to shut them out in the (bottom of the) inning. I was so proud of Aaliyah. She doesn’t play much, but she stepped up tonight.”
Kaitlyn Daniel went 3 for 6 with four RBIs and a pair of walks as the Lady Vikings avenged their previous two losses against No. 4 seed East Jackson (16-14), the defending state champion. East Hall lost 10-4 on Aug. 16 before dropping a 5-4 contest in the regular-season finale Sept. 27 to the Lady Eagles.
As night settled in Wednesday, the Lady Vikings were in danger of losing another in the series.
East Hall drew five walks in the first inning of Game 2 to quickly grab a four-run lead, but the Lady Eagles chipped away at the deficit to tie the game at 5 apiece heading into the final inning. The Lady Vikings’ four errors in the nightcap led to as many runs for the opposition.
“These games were similar to our first two games against them (during the regular season) in the way they scored,” Joiner said. “I really didn’t think they would score unless we gave it to them. But I’ve always preached that if we hit well, we can afford to make a few mistakes.”
Banks embodied her coach’s philosophy, igniting the seventh-inning outburst by legging out an infield single after waiting on a specific pitch.
“They had been throwing me changeups all game, and I struck out on them my last two at-bats,” Banks said. “So I was ready for it. My approach was just to put the ball in play and run as fast as I could because they struggled with making short throws.”
Peyton Turner followed with a full-count walk, and Banks advanced to third base on a wild pitch before Stringer’s go-ahead double over the head of East Jackson’s left fielder. Gracie Smith reached safely on a fielder’s choice, Carley Cox ripped an RBI single and a wild pitch and error allowed both players to score.
Joiner said he was calm through both his team’s brief meltdown and raucous rally.
“I just woke up and had that feeling we were going to get it done today. I even talked to the other coaches about that,” he said. “Today was just one of those days. But they’re still a very, very difficult team to beat. Having won state last year, they know how to win games like these.”
East Jackson managed a leadoff single in response, but Steffanie Redmon — who relieved Banks in the fifth inning — slammed the door with three consecutive strikeouts.
Cox (three hits) scored the first run of the night after singles by Redmon and Banks in the opening inning of Game 1. But the Lady Vikings ran into trouble in the third inning when East Jackson turned three hits and a pair of East Hall errors into a 3-1 lead.
Daniel’s sacrifice fly made it 3-2 in the bottom half of the inning before the Lady Vikings’ four-run uprising in the fourth.
East Hall batted around the order, starting with Smith, who singled and eventually trotted home after back-to-back Lady Eagles errors. The Lady Vikings then surged ahead, scoring three runs with two outs thanks to Daniel’s two-RBI single over the center fielder’s head and Turner’s opposite-field hit.
Banks cruised from there into the seventh inning, when she induced cleanup hitter Kate Woodall’s game-ending flyout to center field with runners on the corners.
“We take a lot of pride in beating them,” Banks said. “They won state last year, and they expected to come in here and beat us. … Coming into these games, we had to get over the fact that they hit us and ran on us and scored on us earlier this season. We had to show that nobody can take us lightly.”
Now East Hall moves on to the second round of the playoffs, where it fell to Cook County High last season.
The Lady Vikings can punch their ticket to the championship weekend in Columbus when they host third-seeded Bremen High, which swept No. 2 seed Westminster in the first round, next Wednesday in Gainesville.