LENOIR — Save for Saturday’s draw, Hibriten knows its status for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s 2A softball tournament. However, even with the Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference wrapped up, along with the top seed from the league, the Panthers are not letting up and they proved that with a 12-1 pounding of visiting Bunker Hill in a contest that ended in the fifth inning due to the 10-run rule.
The victory sets up the Panthers (13-0) with a chance for an unbeaten regular season when they host West Iredell (4-8) on Thursday. Meanwhile, Bunker Hill (9-4) had hoped to clinch the second of the two playoff berths allotted to the conference with a win. The loss dropped the Bears into a tie with Fred T. Foard for second place. The Bears will host Patton (2-11) on Thursday and a win would clinch that berth, as they own the tiebreaker over the Tigers. Having split the two regular season meetings, and with both being swept by Hibriten, the tiebreaker will come down to how each did against fourth-place Draughn. Bunker Hill swept the Wildcats, while Foard split the two contests.
The win was the fourth in a row by the Panthers against Bunker Hill, but Tuesday’s tilt had little resemblance to the 4-3, extra-inning affair between the two just three weeks ago. This time, it took 91 minutes for Hibriten to dismantle the Bears. The Panthers scored four in the second, five in the third and three in the fourth to put the game away.
In preparing the Panthers for the playoffs, coach Jim Blanton recalled his recent experience as the head coach of the boys soccer team. Seeded first in the 2A playoffs back in March, unbeaten Hibriten took No. 16 Smoky Mountain lightly and was nearly upset in regulation before pulling away in overtime. Blanton is treating this week’s games for his softball as the playoffs.
“I tried to challenge them to understand that this is the first round of the playoffs,” said Blanton after the game. “I didn’t want the same hiccup we had the first round in soccer, because we underestimated Smoky Mountain ... We’re essentially looking at second- and third-round type games to get them to prepare mentally.”
After the Panthers put the first two on in the second, the Bears nearly escaped with a pair of force plays, one of which was a diving stab of a grounder by shortstop Addie Wray, who crawled to second for the second out of the inning. But RBI singles by Zoe Waters, Jordan Schlageter and Cody Ferguson, plus an errant throw from the outfield, accounted for the four runs.
A pair of walks and two errors jumpstarted the Panthers' attack in the third. This time, Kelli Sanders and Waters had run-scoring singles, along with Schlageter’s two-out RBI double to make it 9-0.
The Bears showed a little life in the fourth when Makayla Herman singled and later scored on DaLesha Linebarger’s grounder to first.
However, Schlageter finished her perfect night with a bases-loaded double that brought in the final three runs. Hitting ninth in the order, the junior left fielder finished 3-for-3 with two doubles, a run scored, a steal and five RBIs. Waters and Sydney Wike each had two hits.
Blanton said the game for Schlagater was only the second in which she has seen a plate appearance. “We’ve been DH-ing for her,” said Blanton. “She didn’t have a lot of success in the first game, but today she came out and put the ball in play. That’s about all we can ask you to do.”
In the circle, Jillian Jones pitched a complete game, allowing the one run on six hits with five strikeouts.
Wray had three hits to lead the Bears' attack.
Bunker Hill: 000 10 – 1 6 5
Hibriten: 045 3X – 12 10 0
WP: Jillian Jones
LP: Makayla Herman