As Pace High’s Payton Carpenter approached the plate in the District 1-6A championship softball game Saturday, first-year coach Katy Neal gave the sophomore some last-minute direction.
“I told her to hit a line drive,” said Neal, the former star player at Pace, who led the Patriots to a state championship in 2007. “But she said it was her goal to hit a home run.”
And that’s exactly what Carpenter did, blasting a two-run home run over the center field fence in her first at-bat to give Pace a 2-0 lead it never relinquished in a 3-1 victory against host Milton.
“It felt awesome,” Carpenter said. “That was my goal — to hit a home run, and I did it.”
An overflow crowd at Milton watched the battle of the two neighboring rivals.
The Patriots now will host District 2-6A runner-up Panama City Mosley in the quarterfinal round of the Class 6A state playoffs on Thursday. As the 1-6A runner-up, the Panthers will go on the road to play 2-6A champion Niceville, which won a state championship in 2011 and finished as a state runner up in 2010 and ’12.
“This means everything,” Carpenter said of winning the district crown. “Winning tonight means that our team can overcome anything when we put our minds to it. We can get through anything as a team, and that’s the only way we can get through anything.”
Mallory Carpenter, a senior, was hit by a pitch to lead off the first inning for the Patriots. One batter later, the younger Carpenter brought her in to open up scoring in the game.
The Panthers — which left 10 runners stranded in the game — then threatened to take the lead in the top of third.
Marcello Delmarco drew a walk to leadoff the inning and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt from third baseman Amanda Somerset. Catcher Emily Vasquez was hit by a pitch, and Whitney Dowell hit an infield single to load the bases.
With two outs, Delmarco charged home on a passed ball for the Panthers’ lone run of the game. But then Milton pitcher Hannah Brake grounded out to second to end the inning.
Milton continued to put Pace’s lead in danger in the sixth and seventh inning, putting two runners on base in each inning. But each time, the Patriots were able to hold the Panthers scoreless to secure the win.
“The day I started working with these guys, I knew they had something special, and they haven’t let me down yet,” said Neal, a four-year starter at the University of South Alabama. “They’re an extremely talented and special group. And I don’t think we’re done here.”
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