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PREP SOFTBALL: Eastside falls in tight sweet 16 series
Kailey Rusk
Eastside Eagles pitcher Kailey Rusk was masterful in both games against the Generals but a tough team night at the plate stifled the team's chances of winning. Photo by Michael Pope.

COVINGTON, Ga. - It was a hard-fought pitching battle between two of the state’s best as the Eagles fell to the defending state champion Heritage Generals in two games.

Both games were highlighted by superb pitching on both sides, and it was back and forth all night between the Generals Rachel Gibson and Eagles Kailey Rusk.

In game one, Rusk allowed one run on four hits and eight walks while striking out 13 Generals batters in 8 and 1/3 innings. While her counterpart, Gibson, shut the Eagles out on one hit and two walks and 13 strikeouts of her own in 9 innings pitched. 

Neither team was able to get on the scoreboard until extra innings, and it was the Generals breaking through with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth on a single to center that would bring home the games only run. 

It was the second time the bases were full of Generals, but this time Rusk was not able to work out of the situation. Besides those late-game situations, Rusk dominated the Generals batters and gave the Eagles an opportunity to win game one.

Although Rusk was dominant throughout, her defense also did an excellent job of backing her up and keeping Generals off the base paths. Eagles catcher Heather Henderson was particularly outstanding as she did her part by throwing out multiple runners on stolen base attempts. 

It was the Eagles bats that faltered in game one as Natalie Ray earned the only Eagles hit in the contest, and that would not be enough to bring a single run in to score. 

In game two, the game followed much of the same storyline, but this time around, the Eagles were hit with an unfortunate injury. 

After falling behind 1-0 in the top half of the third after a walk and a double by the Generals, the Eagles would have to play catch up, and losing a key piece along the way did not help their cause. 

It was their backstop, Heather Henderson, who obtained an odd injury while catching what seemed to come on a routine pitch. Henderson had some form of discomfort in her left hand and was unable to return to play. 

The loss of Henderson behind the plate forced the Eagles to shift around their infield and move starting shortstop Lauren Burnett in to catch. Burnett did not skip a beat, and coach Wood was pleased with her ability to take over in that spot.

However, the Generals would add on another run late after a miscommunication in the infield, which came after Burnett’s move to catcher. Eagles third baseman Alysee Dobbs, who made a move from third base to shortstop, did an excellent job of leading and helping her teammates regroup. 

“She’s a great leader, and she really has done a great job for us defensively as a leader,” Wood said. “To me, she’s had the best at-bats than she’s had the past three years I’ve coached her, so I can’t say enough good things about her.”

That run would really not matter in the outcome of the game, and the defense eventually settled into their normal remarkable play. However,  similar to game one, the Eagles bats continued to struggle. 

Once again, the Eagles could only muster one hit, and it came on a line-drive double by Ava Anglin down the left-field line in the bottom of the sixth. Anglin would make it to third, but Gibson would strand her there and keep the Eagles off the board for the rest of the game to secure the 2-0 victory.

Gibson shut the Eagles out again while holding them to one hit and two walks and ten strikeouts in seven innings. Rusk was also exceptional while only allowing two runs on five hits and two walks, with six strikeouts. 

When Wood was asked about Rusk’s career as an Eagle, she had one word that immediately came to her mind. 

“Phenomenal. She’s been amazing to coach and we’re certainly going to miss her next year,” Wood said.

While this matchup easily could have been a final four or even state championship matchup, Wood wishes her seniors could have gotten these wins to advance to Columbus. 

“I hate it for our seniors, and I know what they’ve put into this season,” Wood said. “They’re definitely going to be missed.”

With this being the last game for seniors like Rusk and others, Wood knows it was tough to lose at this stage but is hopeful for her team’s future. 

“Both of us should be in Columbus, but that’s just how it fell this year. It stinks for us, but we have got to regroup and get ready for next year,” Wood said. “I’ve got a lot of great kids coming back, so we’ll build on that.”