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Lady Eagles strike late in both games to sweep Harlem
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Eastside and Harlem played 15 innings of nearly flawless softball over two games in the opening round of the Class AAA softball playoffs Wednesday. Ironically, the series was decided by one miscue.

Erin Steele scored the tying run in game one then used her speed to score the game-winner in game two after Harlem’s first baseman was unable to handle a low throw from the pitcher on a sacrifice bunt and the Lady Eagles won 2-1 and 1-0 to advance to the second round for the fourth straight year.

Behind a pair of gutsy pitching performances from Taylor Causey, the Lady Eagles scored two runs in the sixth inning of game one and held on then pulled out the one-run win in game two in the eighth of the international tie-breaker.

Battling a stomach virus, Causey was a question mark heading into game one. Given the lead in game one, she worked around a leadoff walk in the top of the seventh to retire the next three Harlem hitters in order to preserve the win. After grinding through game one, she had enough in the tank to author an even grittier performance in game two. She held the Lady Bulldogs to four hits and worked her way around leadoff base runners in five innings to preserve the shutout.

"Taylor — I’ll tell you, that was a huge performance from her," Eastside coach Jason Stokes said. "She was sick. She felt awful. She was crying before the game because she knew what was on the line and how bad she felt. I didn’t plan on pitching her but the first game but she sucked it up. She was great."

Eastside swept one of the top teams in the state and moves on to round two for the third time in as many years under Stokes. The Lady Eagles travel to West Laurens next week for the second round with the winner advancing to the Elite Eight at Columbus.

With a scoreless tie after seven innings in game two, Steele started the eight at second under international tie-breaker rules. She took third on a bunt and broke for home when the first baseman bobbled the throw. She beat the throw on a bang-bang play at the plate.

"We hit a lot of balls hard in play today and they were a very, very good defensive team," Stokes said. "Really the only blunder they had was the pitcher there in the eighth inning and with Erin’s feet, we took advantage of that. I’m so proud of them."

In game one, the Lady Bulldogs broke through first with a run on one hit in the top of the second. A leadoff single and a stolen base setup a ground ball to score the run and Harlem led 1-0 in a tight contest.

Eastside responded immediately and emphatically in the bottom of the inning on back-to-back doubles by Victoria Reich and Amanda Hawkins. Steele walked to leadoff the inning and advanced to second on Bianca Reed’s sacrifice bunt. Reich followed with a ringing double off the centerfield wall to score Steele then came in on Hawkins’ two-bagger to nearly the identical spot.

With a game in his pocket so-to-speak, Stokes turned to his ace again. Still working up her stamina after returning to action a mere two weeks ago, Causey was equally tough in game two, working around leadoff base runners in the second, fourth, fifth and sixth innings and a runner at second in their half of the eighth only to deny Harlem each time.

"I look at myself in that same situation. I played high school baseball. I wanted the ball in my hands in that situation," Stokes said. "Dad gum, I didn’t want the coach taking (the ball) out of my hands when it was my senior year and everything was on the line. There’s no question, if she (Causey) wants it, and she can go, it’s best for the team that she is going to get it."

Eastside’s defense put last week’s debacle in the region tournament behind them to make plays when it needed to Reese Rogers turned a double play after Causey tipped a comebacker in the fourth to end the inning and Megan Hallock recovered quickly to snag a shot off third baseman Emily Almand’s glove to cut down a runner later. Hawkins also had a solid defensive game, throwing out a runner in the fifth to end the inning before snagging two tough foul pop ups in the late innings. Almand also made a key grab on a foul ball behind third in the eighth inning.

"We got in the gym yesterday and tore them up with groundballs," Stokes said. "I don’t know if that did anything but that performance was so big after what happened the other day."

Harlem played sparkling defense as well. The Lady Bulldogs turned three double plays and cut down two runners at home to keep the Lady Eagles at bay. Ironically it was a defensive miscue that proved to be the difference.

"They were a top-ranked team all year long. They were beat by a very good West Laurens team at Columbus last year and they are solid," Stokes said. "They were No. 1 in their region all year until the region tournament where they sort of messed up like we did."

Eastside managed 10 hits over the two games. Hawkins was 2 for 3 in game one and Savannah Upshaw went 2 for 3 in game two. Causey, Almand, Steele, Hallock and Kerstin Hilley each had a hit.