Before filming a video interview with a reporter, Clover senior Blake Wallert asked her Blue Eagle softball teammates, “does it look I’ve been crying?”
Yes Blake, it did.
Wallert had good reason to cry, though. Her Blue Eagles finally go over the Upper State championship hump, edging region rival Northwestern 2-1 in just over an hour Friday night to advance to the best-of-three 4A state championship series. Clover opens the series Monday at 6 p.m., at Summerville.
“Ever since I was in eighth grade we just worked so hard to get to this point,” said Wallert. “Playing our rivals and beating them in this game, it’s just the icing on the cake. It’s the best feeling.”
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Clover had come close the last few seasons, including a loss to Byrnes in the Upper State championship final last spring.
“We’ve been flirting with it the last few years and finally got over the hump,” said Clover coach Shea Hall. “I’m really proud of these girls, they’ve put in a lot of time, and I told them we’re not done yet.”
Immediately after Friday night’s contest concluded and the Blue Eagles completed a victory lap around the outfield, Hall was laying out plans for the next week’s championship series.
“I was not looking past Northwestern, but you really have to prepare a little bit,” said Hall, who scouted Summerville earlier in the week.
Unsurprisingly, the game, featuring two of the state’s top pitchers in Elizabeth Edmunds and Kori Wancheck, produced just seven hits and three runs, most of which came in the first three innings. Northwestern took the lead when Wancheck sent a double tailing into the gap between center and right field in the first inning for a 1-0 advantage.
Clover pecked away at the lead, tying the score in the bottom of the second. Missy Mavrogian led off with a triple, nearly getting tagged out at third before scrambling back to the bag. That proved crucial as Edmunds sent a towering fly ball into the outfield, allowing Mavrogian to tag up and score to tie the game 1-1.
The hosts, buoyed by a raucous crowd supporting both sides, took the lead in the next frame. No. 9 hitter Micah Sherwood led off, slapping a single into the outfield, before Wallert belted a double off the fence to put the Blue Eagles in front 2-1. The ball bent the top of the flimsy outfield barrier before falling back into play.
“I thought it was gone,” said Wallert. “I’m just glad we scored a run.”
From the second inning on, Edmunds only allowed three Trojan baserunners. She held Northwestern’s lineup from No. 5 to No. 9 without a hit, preventing the visitors from ever mounting a rally.
“Elizabeth just pitched a great game,” said Northwestern coach Bryan Smith, holding his young son. “They played good defense behind her, she threw strikes, she kept us off balance the whole game. She did her job and we didn’t do ours.”
After Wallert’s double, Wancheck didn’t allow another hit. The Blue Eagle bats struggled to keep pace with her fiery fastballs. But the Trojans couldn’t muster enough offense to force a second game Friday night.
“Kori is the best player I’ve ever coached, one of the best players definitely from this area,” said Smith. “She leaves a great legacy at Northwestern.”
Clover will have to overcome the excitement of reaching the state finals quickly. They face Summerville, which beat Wando 5-0 Friday night. Monday’s game will be on the road, with the second game Wednesday night in Clover.
WP- Elizabeth Edmunds; LP- Kori Wancheck.
Leading hitters: Clover: Missy Mavrogian 1-3, 3B; Blake Wallert 1-1, RBI 2B, BB; Micah Sherwood 1-2. Northwestern: Rachel Marion 3-3; Kori Wancheck 1-1, RBI, 2B, BB.
Records: Clover 21-10; Northwestern 22-6.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T