It’s been a bit of a trying season for the Eastbrook Panthers’ softball team, especially in the last few weeks.
Coming into Tuesday’s Sectional 39 opener with the Eastern Comets, the Panthers lost 11 of their final 12 regular season contests, even though they played well in most of those games. Their pitching and defense has been solid throughout the second half of the 2019 campaign, but their offense has struggled, especially in recording key hits with runners in scoring position.
But down to their final two outs, and with their season in jeopardy, the Panthers delivered, scoring six runs in the seventh inning to erase a two-run deficit and ultimately defeat the Comets, 8-5.
“I’m so happy for the kids,” Eastbrook Head Coach Harold Coates said. “Just how hard they’ve been playing [and] to finally get a win, it feels good. It feels good to continue in the sectional and play another game.”
Though the Panthers emerged victorious, the beginning of the contest was a much different story. After Eastbrook went down in order to start the contest, the Comets went on to grab an early lead in the bottom of the first. Deanna Ayres led off the frame with a walk and reached second base on a sacrifice bunt from Emily Benson, and Hope Smith followed with an RBI double, giving Eastern their first run of the contest.
The Comets added to their lead in the second, scoring three more runs. Rylie Davison opened the inning with a double, and quickly came around to score on an Eastbrook error. Deanna Ayres brought home another run with an RBI groundout, and Alayna Ayres later scored on a wild pitch for 4-0 Eastern advantage.
But Eastbrook continued to battle, cutting Eastern’s lead in half in the third. Ariel Duke scored on a wild pitch, and with two outs, Helaina Walters singled home Kalli Fairbanks to make it a 4-2 game.
While the Panthers’ offense began to find their rhythm, McMillan settled down nicely after a shaky start. After giving up four runs and three hits in the first two innings, Eastbrook’s senior hurler was nearly perfect in the next four, holding the Comets hitless and scoreless until the final frame.
In a complete-game effort, McMillan allowed six hits and only two earned runs while striking out eight.
“Madi did a great job,” Coates said. “She has battled all year. Sometimes, we haven’t gotten hits for her. Sometimes, we didn’t play defense behind her. [But] I’m happy for her.”
In the top of the seventh, after Chloe Barney walked and Duke lined out to the shortstop to start the inning, the Panthers were on the brink of another long offseason.
But in the season’s biggest moment, the Panthers seized their opportunity and put the finishing touches on one of their biggest victories of the year.
Walters started the rally with a bases-loaded walk and Ross followed with a two-run single, giving Eastbrook their first lead of the evening at 5-4. McMillan added to Eastbrook’s advantage with a sacrifice fly, and with two outs, both Emily Coates and Abigail Cansler scored on an Eastern fielding error, giving the Panthers a four-run cushion.
The Comets were able to get one run back in the bottom of the seventh, but McMillan and the Panthers’ defense closed it out from there, punching Eastbrook’s ticket to the semifinal round.
“It feels so good to see them excited [and] to see their parents excited,” Coates said. “We’ve had a lot of tough games, a lot of tough losses, and I’m not saying this one makes up for them, but it sure helps.”
Duke and Ross each finished with two hits for the Panthers, while Ross and Walters each drove in two runs. Hyatt, Coates, and Andrea Spurlock each added a hit in Eastbrook’s triumph.