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SOFTBALL: Kailey Rusk, Natalie Ray help Eastside put away Alcovy in Eagles' season opener
Kailey Rusk
Eastside senior and North Georgia commit Kailey Rusk tossed 10 strikeouts in a 2-hitter pitching performance which helped the Lady Eagles start their 2019 season off with a win at county rival Alcovy Thursday night. Rusk also went 3 for 5 at the plate with two RBI and a home run. -photo by Anthony Banks

COVINGTON, Ga. — The last time we saw Kailey Rusk on the softball field, she was doing her best on the mound and at the plate to push Eastside back to Columbus. 

Despite the season ending set back to Perry in last year’s playoffs, Rusk impressed in that pair of games with an assortment of timely pitching and power hitting. 

Fast forward to Thursday night as the Lady Eagles opened their 2019 campaign at cross-county foe Alcovy, and it looked as if Rusk was picking up where she left off last year.  

The North Georgia commit and Eastside senior dominated both in the circle and in the box, blasting a two-run shot to open scoring in the first inning and then striking out 10 Alcovy batters as Eastside shook off the Tigers and coasted to a 12-1 win in six innings. 

Eastside wasted no time getting things going offensively as Rusk’s first inning homer, which came on an 0-2 count, came just four batters into the lineup, giving the Eagles a 2-0 lead. After retiring Alcovy’s first three batters in order, Eastside added to its lead in the top of the second when sophomore Natalie Ray belted a RBI double to left field, bringing in Emma Hopper to put the Eagles up 3-0. 

After several innings of a stalemate, Alcovy got a little momentum in the bottom of the fourth when Janee Bellamy tripled on a hard ground ball which scored Talacia Thompson, cutting Eastside’s lead to 3-1. It was close to being just a 3-2 deficit, as Bellamy was arguably a slide into home plate away from executing an inside-the-park homer. Eastside catcher Heather Henderson made the tag at home plate, however, denying Alcovy a second run. 

Although that mid-game moment was a tense one for Eastside coach Heather Wood, she said it was good for her bunch to see Alcovy put a little fire to the Eagles’ feet. 

“Of course you never want to lose a game, but it was good for us to have them show that kind of fight,” Wood said. “It does no good for us to come out and blow teams out all the time. That doesn’t make us better at all.” 

Wood also knew that with this being Eastside’s first game of the season — Alcovy had already gotten its opener under its belt Monday when it defeated Eagle’s Landing 16-1 — there would be some anxiety involved. But overall, the Eagles coach said she was pleased with the way her team responded, especially Rusk. 

“I think Kailey came out and just did a great job hitting her spots and working ahead in the count,” Wood said. 

A steady diet of Rusk’s rise ball and screw ball kept Alcovy off balance all night. And even though Eastside’s ace pitcher hit double-digit strikeouts and carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning, she stopped short of calling it one of her best outings. 

“I think it was a good performance,” she said. “But I think I could’ve done better. I feel like my energy was kind of low at certain points, but I was able to pick it back up at the end.”

Rusk arguably showed her best stuff in the game’s third inning as she struck out the side while the Eagles had a 3-0 lead. She also fanned two of Alcovy’s last three batters to close things out in the sixth. 

Eastside tacked on two runs in the top of the fifth and then exploded for seven runs in the sixth inning to salt the game away. The Eagles recorded 17 hits, while Rusk only surrendered two. Alcovy had four fielding errors that didn’t help their fortunes. 

And although the box score will say that Alcovy pitcher Mackenzie Rodgers took a beating, all things considered, the Tigers’ senior showed some good flashes while pitching against some of the top batters in the state in Class AAAA. 

“Mackenzie pitched her heart out out there,” said Alcovy coach Miranda Lamb. “We just stopped playing defense and we didn’t have her back. After starting pretty well, the old Alcovy showed up, and that was the difference.” 

As for Eastside, Rusk wasn’t the only one doing big things at the plate. Sophomore Natalie Ray led the Eagles with a 4-for-5 hitting night, while scoring a pair of runs and recording three RBI. In doing so, she also showed off the kind of hitting power that isn’t always commonly seen in lead-off hitters. 

When asked if she felt like people underestimated her power, she agreed, saying it happens “a lot.” But instead of focusing on individually proving opponents wrong, Ray says she opts for the team approach. 

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “When I get up to bat, I know they have my back. Everything we do, we do it as a team.” 

The win was a good tune-up for Eastside as it will host Tift County Saturday at 1 p.m. for its home opener, and then will welcome defending Class AAAAA state champion Locust Grove on Monday at 5:55 p.m. 

Meanwhile, despite the loss, Lamb said she appreciated the fact that her batters got to see Rusk’s caliber of pitching. She said it’ll bode well for her squad in the immediate future. 

“It helps, because we start region play next week, which is kind of crazy because it’s still like week one of the season,” Lamb said. “But our region is always tough, so seeing faster pitchers helps us prepare for it.” 

Alcovy will face Monroe Area and Oglethorpe County Saturday, before hosting Newton Tuesday. Region 3-AAAAAA play begins next Thursday when Lakeside-Evans comes to town for a doubleheader.