At the conclusion of Wednesday’s Region 7-4A softball Championship, players from No. 1 seed Flowery Branch High were presented with a brass and glossy, double-handled trophy. It just wasn’t the one they really wanted.
In a battle for the state tournament’s top playoff seed, the Lady Falcons put together 14 strong innings against sixth-ranked Marist, but ultimately fell short in both games of this best-of-three series on their home field of the Hog Mountain Sport Complex.
After narrowly falling 2-1 in Game 1, the Lady Falcons failed to build on an early lead as the visiting Lady War Eagles came from behind to win 5-4 in the nightcap. Flowery Branch totaled just five hits in both games.
Despite stranding 11 base runners in Game 2, the Lady War Eagles (23-4) still paired a number of timely hits with a steady complete-game performance from junior starting pitcher Ashley Haertel to erase an early three-run deficit and eventually climb out with a No. 1 playoff seeding for the state tournament beginning next week.
The No. 2 seeded Lady Falcons (14-12) meanwhile draw the No. 3 seed out of the Region 6 for the opening round series in Flowery Branch, at a date and time to be determined.
“We got up and got complacent,” Flowery Branch coach Laura Novotny-Beaver said of the Game 2 loss. “I mean we competed, but we made some mistakes. And in close ballgames, we can’t make those if we want to win them.
“Marist is one of the best teams in the state for a reason. They played well enough to win.”
The Lady Falcons got the early jump in the nightcap, with a pair of two-run frames in the top of the first and second. After Aubrey Bourrie forced a leadoff walk to start, Gentry Hammock moved her teammate to second base on a sacrifice bunt. Back-to-back RBI-singles by Alyssa Kimbrell (1 for 3, run scored) and Alexis Nixon (1 for 3) put Flowery Branch ahead.
And after Ashley Haertel drove in the Lady War Eagles’ first run off a grounder to third base in the bottom of the first, the Lady Falcons added two more in the second. Courtesy runners Lauren Hicks and Zoe Hadaway each scored on back-to-back passed balls, both pitches skipping behind home plate as Flowery Branch stretched its lead to 4-1.
Things stalled for Flowery Branch moving forward. Marist rallied back, as Avery Vantucci drove in another run off a grounder to the shortstop in the bottom of the third. The Lady War Eagles tallied two more runs the next inning — back-to-back RBI-singles from Haertel and Kennedy Ryman (2 for 4, 2 RBI) to deadlock the game at 4-all.
Ryman help deliver the go-ahead run in the bottom of the sixth with her second-RBI single of the game.
The Lady Falcons did exhibit strong defensive play to keep things within reach, getting a number of impressive plays from third baseman Alexis Nixon and a webgem snag from right fielder Bretta Alexzulian, who made the two-out catch from her knees to bail Flowery Branch out of jam with runners at first and second.
The Lady Falcons otherwise struggled to get any more production from the plate, due in part to Haertel mixing in an effective offspeed pitch to keep Flowery Branch off-balanced. Haertel retired 15 of the final 17 batters she faced, eventually finishing with six strikeouts and one hit allowed over the final five frames.
“We couldn’t stay off the changeup,” Novotny-Beaver said. “When (the pitcher’s) throwing balls on the outside corner, we’ve got to have a backside approach, and we’ve got to be able to drive that ball to right field and not try to pull a changeup. We didn’t make those adjustments as we continued through the lineup.”
In Game 1, the War Eagles scored both runs in the top of the first and seventh innings, good enough to hold on.
Marist scored the go-ahead run with one out via an Avery Fantucci RBI-groundout to second base to plate Allie Bittick, who reached on a leadoff double to right-center and worked her way to third base off a squeeze play and a passed ball.
The Lady Falcons struggled to hit Marist starting pitcher Van Metre, who struck out four and only yielded a pair of hits and no earned runs in her complete-game showing. An Alyssa Kimbrell two-out single in the first and a Rylee Rothschild two-out triple to right field in the bottom of the fourth were the only hits for Flowery Branch in Game 1.
Meanwhile, Lady Falcons starting pitcher Kimbrell, who wound up pitching both games, struck out five batters of her own in a complete-game performance, though got off to a rocky start from inside the circle. She first allowed a run off three Marist singles in the top of the first. She only gave up just two additional hits over the next 5⅓ innings before the unfortunate final frame.
Flowery Branch’s Gentry Hammock exercised restraint from the plate by forcing a leadoff walk in the bottom of the fourth, then showed off her wheels one batter later. ..Hammock advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Kimbrell, then caught the infield by surprise when she turned second and gunned for third. An errant throw by the second baseman ball skipped past third and into the outfield, and Hammock trucked home to deadlock Game 1 at 1-all.
The War Eagles scored the game’s first run with two outs, as Katie Goldberg snuck a slow-rolling ball past second base to bring home Ann White, who reached on a fielder’s choice before taking second on a wild pitch.
Despite the loss, Novotny-Beaver made a point to tell her players that there was still plenty to celebrate. Flowery Branch, in what will be its fifth-consecutive playoff appearance, will get to host a first-round playoff series for the first time.
Their road to Columbus has not changed, the coach said.
“I want them to be disappointed and unsatisfied with some of that stuff. But on the flip side, don’t put your head down,” Novotny-Beaver added. “It’s doesn’t change the road to Columbus any, it just detours it a little bit.”