One out away from victory, Pineville coach Mark Mertens huddled with his entire team on the mound.
“The main thing was I just told my outfielders not to let a ball get past ’em,” he said.
In the final at-bat, with her team down one run, Natchitoches Central leadoff batter Kayla Roquemore sailed a Bailey Allen pitch into center field.
But there was never any doubt that it would get by Payten Collins, who camped under it and made the catch for the final out. Thus, Collins, who drove in the winning run, clinched No. 9 seed Pineville’s 2-1 victory over eighth-seeded Natchitoches Central on a sun-draped Friday afternoon to clinch a spot in the FastPitch 56 state tournament next week in Sulphur. The Lady Rebels will open with a game against St. Amant at 6 p.m. Friday.
Pineville (23-8) got both of its runs in the fourth inning, and Allen, a senior right-hander bound for Louisiana Tech, scattered six hits and struck out eight through all seven innings to improve to 15-6 on the season. She struck out the side in order in the third, gave up just one walk and retired eight of the last 10 batters she faced.
Recovering from that early home run ball, said Allen, was just a matter of getting the feel for the various pitches she needed to use in various situations. Although she gave up a single and the lone walk after allowing the home run, Allen got out of the inning without further trouble, just as she did again in the bottom of the fourth, inducing an inning-ending foul out by Kaylee Story with two runners aboard.
“I treated it like just another game,” said Allen. “I knew the team, was behind me and it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is a second-round playoff game.'”
“Bailey is not real flappable,” said Mertens, a former assistant coach at Pineville in his first year as head coach. “She’s not one to be affected by the emotions surrounding a game. I have never seen that from her in four years.”
Allen got the run support she needed in the fourth. Sarah Desselle, who reached base three times without an official at-bat, got on with a one-out walk, stole second and scored on a double by Allie Williams. With two outs, Collins lined a double to center field to drive in Williams with what proved to be the winning run.
“I knew how she pitches to me since we split with them in district, and I knew the pitch I was waiting for,” said Collins, “and I knew since we had speed on the base, we could score if I got a hit. She just happened to put one right over the plate and that’s what I hit.”
Pineville’s joy was countered by the Lady Chiefs’ sorrow.
“It was looking up for a while. I got that home run and it gave us some confidence, but …,” Alexander said, struggling to continue with tears falling on quivering lips. “Everybody played with a lot of heart. Everybody gave it everything. It’s been a great year.”
Settle, who is headed to Louisiana College, pitched when many others in her condition could not have done so. She sustained a knee (MCL) injury in a home plate collision against Ruston two weeks ago and missed the final four games of the regular season, but she worked hard to get in shape to be cleared to play in the playoffs.
“I worked so hard to get back, but I did not throw my best,” she said between sobs after pitching a complete-game two-hitter with five walks allowed, including two in the fourth. “I could’ve done so much better for my team.”
Paige Grayson, who was promoted from assistant coach to replace Sherry Helms as the NCHS coach in the middle of last season, watched as her players sadly trudged out of the dugout after the loss that ended a 21-9 campaign.
“To meet a district rival in the second round when you know each other so well, that’s a tough draw,” said Grayson. “It was a hard-fought game between two very good teams. If we’d beaten Pineville, who knows where we could’ve gone? Who knows where they can go now?”