COVINGTON, Ga. — In the most dramatic and perhaps unlikely of outcomes, the Eastside Lady Eagles’ softball team is on its way to Columbus, and the Elite Eight round of the Class AAAA state tournament.
Eastside outlasted Spalding 2-1 in eight innings of a pitcher’s dual Game 3 in the best of three qualifying series, as sophomore Kailey Rusk hurled a whopping 12 strikeouts in a complete game of action.
But it was a matter of attention to detail in the bottom of the eighth inning that kept Spalding from either winning the game or, at the least, pushing it to another frame.
With a scoreless tie going into the top of the eighth inning, Eastside’s lone senior, McKenzie Walker starters the go-ahead sequence for the Eagles when she belted a single and then later stole second base. Rusk then came to the plate and smashed what looked to be a RBI double, but she was able to round second and third to come home after a Spalding throwing error, giving Eastside a 2-0 lead.
Spalding would try to spark a rally in the bottom of the eighth, however, when Madison Chambers belted a single to get on base. Then Hayley Farmer smashed another single to right field, where an Eastside wild throw-in gave Chambers the green light to come in for the score.
Eastside was clinging to a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth with a Spalding runner on third and two outs when things got really interesting.
After Rusk struck out Alyssa Risper for the second out, the next Jaguars batter knocked what looked like an RBI single that brought home the tying score. Except the tying runner leaped over home plate instead of touching home plate.
Once the Spalding runner got back to the dugout, thinking she had scored, Eastside assistant coaches, parents and sophomore catcher Alysse Dobbs started trying to alert Rusk of the Spalding player’s miscue.
Dobbs beckoned for Rusk to throw the ball to her at home plate, and when she did and Dobbs touched the plate, the umpire called the third out, touching off a wild celebration near the home team’s dugout.
“After she scored, I knew they threw the ball back into the pitcher,” Dobbs said. “And I looked back and everybody was screaming, ’Touch home. Take her at home. Touch home base.’ So I told Kailey to throw it to me and she did, and I asked the umpire, and he said, ‘She’s out,’ and it was just a great feeling all over.”
Eastside coach, Heather Wood credited the alertness of one of her assistants for helping provide that final out.
“Coach Bells went out to take some balls that had gotten wet, and he heard someone say (that the runner didn’t touch the bag),” Wood said. “Then Alysse heard it and she touched the bag, so it was just such a good feeling. It’s nice sometimes when you get those plays to go your way that sometimes don’t go our way.”
For Walker, it was a sweet way to go out on her last home softball game.
“It feels great,” she said. “For the four years I’ve been here, we’ve never been to state at Columbus and I just feel grateful to go to state with this group of girls.”
When Rusk recalls the career night she had — made even sweeter by the fact that Spalding rocked Eastside pitching for seven runs in Wednesday’s game two — she immediately exchanged the late-game pressure she felt for Columbus joy.
“I feel so excited,” Rusk said. “I told everybody before this game that we were going to win and that we were going to Columbus. Last night in the second game, I didn’t do too well. And I said to myself that I’m coming out and pitching the best I could, regardless of what happened. It was a lot of pressure. I almost peed on myself. But we got the runs we needed in the end.”
Speaking of pressure, the Lady Eagles say it’s all gone now. With a trip to Columbus now on the agenda, the plan from here on out is to play freely and act like they belong.
“I think we’re just gonna be loose out there,” Walker said. “When you make it to Columbus, it’s anybody’s game. Even if you lose, it’s a tournament, and you get to keep fighting until the end.”
Wood believes that, regardless of how long or short Eastside’s season is from here, being in Columbus will do wonders for this team.
“From my standpoint, they need that Columbus experience,” Wood said. “Get their feet wet,y you know. Postseason. “We’re hoping to come out and compete, and that’s exactly what we want, but I think it’s just a great experience and memory for them, and I want them to enjoy that.”