It was tough sledding from the get-go for the Flowery Branch High softball team during a second-round playoff doubleheader against Madison County on Wednesday in Danielsville.
The No. 2 seeded Lady Falcons (16-14) hung in for the majority of the opener against the Lady Red Raiders, and fought back near the end in Game 2, but a sporadic offense doomed the visitors as they fell 2-0 and 7-2 in the best-of-three series.
“As a whole, we’re very proud of them,” Flowery Branch softball coach Laura Novotny-Beaver said. “They’ve far exceeded our expectations, and they’ve fought and played together as a team all year. And they had opportunities out here.”
Game 1 was a pitcher’s duel from the beginning.
Less than a week after going the distance in a 10-inning, first-round victory over Northwest Whitfield last Friday, senior Alyssa Kimbrell ended her varsity career with a pair of complete game showings. She struck out four while allowing just two runs in the opener before adding five more strikeouts during an unfortunate Game 2.
“She is amazing,” Novotny-Beaver said of Kimbrell. “She’s been a workhorse for us. She’s pitched great all four years, but this year she really came into her own and she dominated the circle. We wouldn’t be where we are without her.”
Not to be outdone, Madison County pitcher Emma Strickland also pitched a full seven innings, striking out seven and did not allow a single run in Game 1.
The opener started off slow as the teams combined for just one hit and no runs for the first two frames. But in the third inning, a bunt from Strickland went just far enough to bring a sliding Lexi Jordan home from third base, narrowly avoiding the tag.
One inning later, a single by Madison County’s Laney Bales plated Emily Austin to make it 2-0.
It was a score that would hold until the end, as both teams struggled to produce any offense. Flowery Branch found some momentum at the top of the seventh, when senior Alexis Nixon hit a stand-up double deep to left field. It elicited chants of “that’s our senior” from the Flowery Branch dugout, while an emotional Nixon roared back in approval to her team from the diamond.
“Alexis has always been a spark,” Novotny-Beaver said. “They feed off of her and her leadership and what she’s capable of doing.”
But the Lady Falcons failed to bat Nixon around, leaving her stranded at second to end Game 1.
Madison County’s offense began to pick up steam in the nightcap.
Kimbrell remained in the circle, and did manage to escape a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, striking out two and then inducing a pop up to prevent any Madison County scoring.
Things turned quickly by the second inning. Bales got things going for the Lady Raiders with a two-run double. On the very next at-bat, Ella Chancey’s single brought in a third runner for a 3-0 lead.
Madison County added two more runs in the sixth and two more in the seventh for a 7-0 lead.
And while the odds were certainly not in their favor, the Lady Falcons did not lose confidence.
After Savannah Rutledge and Valerie Eder each reached safely on back-to-back at bats, Bretta Alexzulian brought Rutledge home on a groundout to first base for Flowery Branch’s first run of the night. Eder scored in similar fashion off an Aubrey Bourrie groundout on the next at bat to bring the score to 7-2.
“I think that’s a testament to their drive and their belief and love for each other that it doesn’t matter what the score is,” Novotny-Beaver said of the comeback bid. “They’ll be able to rally and come back, and I respect that. I love that about them.”
It wasn’t meant to be for the Lady Falcons, as a Kimbrell flyout ended the game two batters later.
In the end, Flowery Branch fell one round short of a trip to Columbus, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the program joined the Class 4A. Still, after the game, Novotny-Beaver said she could not overstate the pride she felt for her squad all season long.
“They gave themselves opportunities, they didn’t quit and they competed until the very end,” Novotny-Beaver said. “We’re proud of them for that. We can’t ask any more of them than that, being able to come out here and support each other and give 100 percent and compete until the end.”