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PEMBROKE — For six innings against Lumberton Wednesday, the Purnell Swett softball team was kept off the scoreboard, and it looked like the Sandhills Athletic Conference championship — theirs with a victory — might slip out of their grasp.
But the Rams came back to stun their rivals with four runs in the seventh, earning a 4-3 win when Bella Finelli scored from second base on Nyla Mitchell’s two-out, two-run infield single.
“Knowing that I had two outs going to the plate, I wanted to do something definitely for my team, and then with two strikes, knowing that I had to get a hit to score the (tying) run or the winning run, so (I was) going up there with confidence and knowing that the girls had my back,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell’s game-winner was a sharp line drive off Lumberton pitcher Halona Sampson, fielded by second baseman Alona Hanna; Mitchell beat the throw to first base. After pinch-runner Alisha Rogers scored the tying run, Finelli never stopped running around third, and got to the plate to score ahead of a last-ditch Pirates throw.
“I saw they weren’t paying attention, so I was like, might as well go,” Finelli said.
Purnell Swett (10-2, 10-2 SAC) has been held to three hits through the first six innings by Sampson, who struck out four and walked two.
“She’s a bulldog,” Lumberton coach Mackie Register said of his freshman pitcher. “She went after batters, didn’t back down; the moment wasn’t too big for her.”
“Halona, she threw the ball well,” Purnell Swett coach William Deese said. “She hit her spots and had us off all night. Every inning we just kept saying we need to adjust, and it was getting down to the last three outs. At the beginning of the inning we told them don’t quit. … We made something happen.”
Chloe Locklear hit a blooper down the line for a leadoff double to start the seventh; Torrie Butler reached on a bunt single that moved courtesy runner Dora Locklear to third.
“(Chloe) started us up,” Deese said. “She led the inning off with a double, and people asked me about Torrie bunting the ball, did I call that bunt? No. I tell my girls they’re free to lay down a bunt ever so often — I wish they’d do it more — but she decided she wanted to bunt, because she was struggling with everything outside. After the hit, that’s what got us going. It’s been a few games since we had back-to-back-to-back hits like that.”
Kaitlyn Locklear plated Dora Locklear with an RBI groundout. Angelica Locklear walked, and runners advanced to second and third on a Kara Deese groundout. Finelli singled to score Butler, and took second on the throw, putting her in position to score on Mitchell’s hit.
“Bella came up big and got the hit to score the (second) run, then ended up going to second on the throw,” Deese said. “That set the stage.”
Lumberton (8-6, 6-6 SAC) saw its season end at the game’s conclusion. The Pirates had a slim chance at an at-large playoff berth with a win and some help elsewhere in the regular season’s final days.
“It’s Purnell Swett’s year,” Register said. “Going into that last inning, I knew we had the meat of their order, and Chloe led off with a double. That was a blooper down the line, really … We just had bad luck in that last inning. Our pitcher still hit her spots; they just stepped it up a little bit.”
Summer Bullard was the winning pitcher despite never throwing a pitch from in front; she allowed three runs — all in the fourth inning — on four hits with one walk and 11 strikeouts.
“I knew they were going to have my back at the end of it, so that’s why I didn’t give up,” Bullard said. “They’ve had my back since we were kids, because all of us have played together.”
After August Smith’s single and Syniah Lancaster’s walk started Lumberton’s rally in the fourth, Hanna singled to plate Smith. The Pirates added two more runs on an Anna Mercer two-RBI single to score Lancaster and Nyiah Walker.
Outside of the fourth, Lumberton was mostly held off the base paths. Bullard retired the first eight Pirate batters of the game and stranded single baserunners in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh innings; two of those runners reached on errors.
The Rams similarly struggled to gain offensive momentum before the seventh, stranding single base runners in the third and fifth innings; the Rams also had baserunners in the first and fourth innings who were thrown out on the bases.
“We’ve struggled the last few games with that,” Deese said. “The stretch of Pinecrest, Scotland and Jack Britt, we left 20-plus runners on base. … It’s a mental thing, because we swing the bats well. I think we still haven’t reached our potential as a hitting team.”
Chloe Locklear, who doubled to start the fourth before her leadoff double sparked the seventh-inning rally, was the only player for either team with multiple hits in the game.
The win secures Purnell Swett its first conference championship in softball since 2012.
“Winning the conference was the main step,” Mitchell said. “Now we’re going after the state championship.”
“Every year — and that’s why it’s called a rival — you want to beat Lumberton,” Deese said. “And what makes it more (special) is we’re friends. Me and Mackie are friends, me and (Lumberton assistant coach William Britt), we’ve all had history, and these girls play with each other on their travel teams and they’re friends, and it makes it more rewarding to beat Lumberton and be conference champions.”
That friendship was evident following the game, even with the differing emotions of victory in one dugout and defeat in the other, as both coaches were complimentary of the opposing program.
“I’m glad a Robeson County team won the championship; Will does a good job with those girls, so it just makes it that much better for the next couple of years against them too,” Register said.
“Lumberton got hot here towards the end of the season and they’ve played well,” Deese said. “They’ve got a good team and their pitcher is going to keep them in the game. They’ve had some big hits; they’ve done everything they’re supposed to. It’s just our night; it was just meant to be for us tonight.”