The march toward postseason infamy begins Thursday for a number of local high school softball and baseball teams.
In the area’s only inter-region matchup, Clover hosts Northwestern at 6 p.m. in the first round of the softball state playoffs. Northwestern (12-9, 7-7) provides the top-seeded Blue Eagles with a tough first-round foe, especially given the familiarity between the teams. Clover beat Bryan Smith’s team twice in the regular season, 2-0 and 4-3, but the Trojans did knock off the Blue Eagles in a preseason tournament.
“This time of year, you’ve got to be ready to play anybody,” Clover coach Shea Hall said Wednesday. “It’s going to be tough.”
The Blue Eagles went undefeated in Region 3, posting a 14-0 record, and finished the regular season 22-4. They’re currently ranked ninth in the state softball polls, and eager to best last season’s 4-1 loss to Mauldin in the District 3 finals. Clover is in the midst of its second 11-game winning streak this season and has scored double digit runs the last three games, but Trojan hurler Kori Wancheck has been outstanding this spring, holding opposing batters to a .184 average and striking out 180, while walking just 39.
“She’s pitched really well all three times we’ve faced her. But fortunately for us, Elizabeth has too,” said Hall, citing the Blue Eagles’ starting arm, sophomore Elizabeth Edmunds. “We’re just trying to find ways to manufacture runs. We know Kori is going to be tough on the mound – she always is – we just have to do a better job of putting the ball in play.”
Wancheck is also batting .415 with five home runs and 26 RBIs, and she gives Northwestern a fighting chance against the region’s top seed. The Clover-Northwestern winner faces the Hillcrest-Mauldin winner Saturday in the second round.
Rock Hill (10-5, 10-4) also nabbed a first-round home game by virtue of finishing second in Region 3. The Bearcats will face Gaffney at home at 7 p.m. Rock Hill lost its first two games in last season’s state tournament and was promptly eliminated.
Like Northwestern, Rock Hill has its own pitching and batting ace this season in Macey Brazzell. She’s hitting .395 and has been a menace to opposing offenses, striking out 144 so far and hurling a perfect game earlier in the year against South Pointe. Should the Bearcats advance, they would face the winner of J.L. Mann and Dorman in Saturday’s second round.
There were tough draws for the other two Region 3 teams in the softball bracket, Lancaster and Nation Ford. The Falcons will face the Region 4 champion, Blythewood, while the Bruins tackle the Region 4 runner-up, Spring Valley. Lewisville, the Region 3-A champs, will host Ridge Spring-Monetta in the Class A first round, also Thursday, and Chester travels to No. 1 seed Seneca in the Class AAA postseason.
Northwestern, Nation Ford host first-round baseball playoff games
Northwestern won yet another Region 3 baseball title with an unblemished 14-0 mark, giving the Trojans a home game in the first round of the state tournament Thursday evening against Easley. Northwestern (23-2) has won the District 3 championship the past three years but has bowed out at the Upper State championship level each time. This year’s team has already surpassed expectations.
“Each year is a different group of kids, and we’re happy to be where we are,” said Northwestern coach Mitch Walters, whose team returned just two regular starters from last year’s squad. “With what we had coming back, we didn’t foresee the record we have so far.”
The Trojans have the ability to score runs in bunches, led by leadoff man DuPree Hart and junior Josh Crump, a Coastal Carolina commitment. They’ll be challenged on the mound by likely Easley starter Tucker Burgess, who has signed with Clemson. Facing a college prospect doesn’t change much offensively for the Trojans, who only hit four home runs as a team this season.
“All we talk about is having a quality at-bat,” said Walters. “It could be making the pitcher throw 10 pitches and striking out. For us, that’s a good at-bat because you’re getting the pitcher’s pitch count up, making him work… if you do the little things, it’s gonna help you in the long run.”
The Northwestern-Easley winner will face the Laurens-Mauldin winner Saturday in the second round. Should the Trojans win, they would again host.
Nation Ford (18-6, 10-4) welcomes Wade Hampton to Fort Mill in Thursday night’s first round after the Falcons finished second in the region. With a deep pitching staff led by ace Dalton Helms, the Falcons figure to make some noise in their first Class AAAA postseason. The victor advances to Saturday’s matchup with the winner of Greenwood and Spartanburg.
Lancaster travels to Spring Valley, while Fort Mill, which lost to A.C. Flora in the Class AAA state finals last year, slipped into the Class AAAA postseason this year as Region 3’s fourth seed. Brad Mercer’s Yellow Jackets (14-10, 7-7) will hit the road in the first round to face Blythewood.
Belton-Honea Path hosts Chester in the Class AAA first round, and Lewisville will travel to Ridge Spring-Monetta in Thursday’s Class A action.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T