Northwood’s softball team knew it faced a tough challenge against Neville pitcher Megan Long on Saturday afternoon in the regional round of the Class 4A playoffs.
The No. 22 Lady Falcons (12-14) were able to score in the bottom of the first inning to take an early lead, but Long settled in, and the No. 6-seeded Lady Tigers (19-9) pulled out a 2-1 win to advance to face No. 3 West Ouachita in the quarterfinals.
“We got a run early, but they were able to get one more than us,” Northwood coach Greg Swearengin. “They did a great job. Our team competed, and I know we did all that we could do. Unless you have a pitcher like (Long), it’s hard to emulate that in practice. We cranked up our pitching machines, and we did everything we could to get ready. And I think we did well, considering. We put the ball in play, hit some hard, and they didn’t make a mistake.”
The Lady Falcons took their 1-0 lead without getting the ball out of the infield. Aubrey Moron walked and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. She took third on a passed ball and then scored on another passed ball from Neville’s battery.
“After that, we just had to relax,” Neville coach Trey Dozier said. “We knew they were going to bunt a lot, so we had been working on those types of plays all week. After the first inning, it really paid off.”
Northwood’s defense held strong for the first three innings. Neville was able to tie the game in the top of the fourth inning. With Mary Claire Shepard on second base, Neville’s Abbey Vallery hit the ball deep to right field. The ball struck the yellow protector on the top of the fence and bounced back into the field for a two-out, RBI double.
“We knew if we stayed focused and kept hitting the ball the other way, it would fall eventually,” Dozier said. “When the ball bounced back in play, you know things just happen in mysterious ways. We stayed with it and kept trying to hit it the other way.”
Northwood was able to get out of the fourth inning without any more damage and also escaped the top of the fifth without giving up any more runs after the first two Lady Tigers reached.
“We made the routine plays, and the hits they got were ones over our outfielders’ heads,” Swearengin said. “The top of the fifth, when we kept them from scoring after they had two on and none out, was huge for us. We battled. We played as hard as we could play today.”
But Shepard led off the top of the sixth inning with a triple and scored on a fielder’s choice by Vallery, and Long shut down the Lady Falcons by getting a groundout to start the bottom of the sixth followed by five straight strikeouts to end the game.
“It’s exciting for our team, and for me being a first-year head coach here and being with these girls and all we’ve been through, we’re definitely ready to go down to Sulphur,” Dozier said. “Our motto all year has been, ‘Make the routine plays and have fun.’ That’s what we did, and everything worked out.”
Long allowed just two hits to go with her 13 strikeouts.