COVINGTON, Ga. — It’s safe to say that the way this season ended for the Eastside Eagles’ softball team was about as unexpected as the climax to the 2017 campaign, but for different reasons.
Last year, Eastside was the young, upstart team with loads of talent, a sophomore pitcher with a big arm and just one senior that sent a few shockwaves through the Georgia high school softball world by qualifying for the Class AAAA Elite Eight in Columbus.
With pretty much that entire team coming back this season, and a regular season schedule chocked full of games against solid competition designed to get an arguably even more talented team Columbus ready, a trip down 85-south seemed inevitable.
But thanks to a hungry Perry Lady Panthers squad, any Eastside reservations for Columbus will have to be postponed at least until this time next year.
Perry made sure of that Thursday evening by upsetting the Lady Eagles 9-5 in the deciding game three of the best-of-three Class AAAA Sweet 16 series and punching its own ticket to Columbus on Eastside’s home field.
The Lady Panthers did it in come-from-behind fashion, after surrendering a pair of home runs to Eastside’s Kailey Rusk — one a 2-run shot in the top of the first that put Eastside ahead 2-0, and the other a 3-run bomb over the right field fence that extended Eastside’s advantage 5-2 in the top of the second.
After Rusk’s big hits, the Perry coaching staff decided to intentionally walk her the rest of the way, and the rest of the Eastside bats could only muster four more base hits the rest of the night as freshman pitcher Reagan Hughes gave the Eagles’ hitters fits all series long.
“Her speed, our timing. We just weren’t adjusting,” said Eastside coach Heather Wood. "We made better adjustments in the final game, but there were still some moments where we weren’t adjusting and moving runners and making things happen. We should’ve scored more than five runs. We should’ve scored every couple of innings at least, and there were a couple of missed opportunities that didn’t give us any cushion, or else it could’ve been a different ball game.”
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity for Eastside came in the bottom of the sixth of game three while Eastside was still clinging to a 5-4 lead.
Perry’s Harley Crumley led off the inning with a single, but Rusk was able to get Crasen Garner to ground out and Miranda Lawhorn to strike out.
With two outs, instead of Rusk being able to retire the side, Perry’s Caley Benitez advanced to first base after being hit with a pitch. From there, it was Terra Odom’s single that drove in the tying run. Then, freshman AliRae Dykes belted a two-run single to give Perry a 7-5 lead. Sophomore Abby Ussery came right behind her with a RBI double that ushered in the last two runs of the ball game.
In the top of the seventh, senior Dani Fairey did her best to try and spark a rally by knocking a double. But that hit was sandwiched between a ground out and a pop out, the latter ending the game and Eastside’s season.
Perry came into the state tournament as a No. 4 seed out of Region 2-AAAA, having lost six of its last seven games, including games in its region tournament. But it upset top seed Thomson before extending its good fortunes at Eastside. Now the Lady Panthers will move on to face Madison County Thursday in Columbus.
“(Perry)’s just one of those teams you have to be careful with,” Wood said. “They showed up, they made the plays that had to be made, whether it’s routine plays or moving runners. They put the ball in play and were a team that’s always on their toes, and you can never settle or take them lightly at all. They had some Columbus experience last year. Both teams had a lot on the line, and, you know, it’s just disappointing for us, and I wish it went our way.”
Thanks to Rusk, things were definitely going Eastside’s way offensively early on. But even with those to home run jolts, the Lady Panthers kept the pressure on.
Immediately after Rusk’s first homer, Perry’s Odom singled, followed by a bunt single from Dykes which put the Panthers in perfect position for Allison Peavy to drive in two on a two-run double.
And before Perry’s big sixth inning, it inched back into the contest with Ussery’s RBI single and Peavy’s sacrifice out that chopped Eastside’s lead to 5-4.
The Eagles finished their season 22-10 amid a backdrop of five seniors, including Fairey, Kendel McAuliffe and Jordan Rittenbacher sharing tearful embraces with teammates that soon turned into the kind of consoling smiles and laughter shared with friends.
It seemed to paint perfectly Wood’s verbal illustration of a team didn’t reach its postseason goals, but still shouldn’t be classified a failure.
“We had a good season,” Wood said when asked how she addressed her seniors. “We had a great season, and we beat a lot of great teams. We made strides. Yes, it’s disappointing, not a failure, but just a disappointment in the way it ended. But I’m grateful for our seniors who got to experience Columbus last year, and they’ve done a lot of great things for our program.”
As she spoke, the celebratory shrieks from Perry’s side of the field competed with her voice. As Wood continued talking, she took a quick glance in that direction and then looked away while expressing an expectation for her team to use the loss as fuel for the 2019 campaign.
“I’m appreciative of everything our girls have done, but I’m hoping the girls who are left that are experiencing this will use it as motivation for next year,” she said. “It’s not a great feeling getting beat on your home turf with Columbus on the line.”