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A large, boisterous group of fans who made the trip to UNCG celebrate following the two-out, bottom of the seventh rally that clinched a championship.    Eric Abernathy/Randolph Hub

Cougars win thriller to earn state championship

GREENSBORO — As Sara-Kate Marion slid across home plate to score the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 2 of the NCHSAA state 2-A Championship Series Saturday, Madelyn Smith noticed the ball squirting away from the Midway catcher.


Without hesitation and without fear, Smith broke toward the plate. When the ball, which had settled near the backstop, was finally picked up by the pitcher, her backhanded throw to the plate was nowhere near the intended target and Smith scored the winning run, setting off a wild celebration among SWR players, coaches and a large fanbase which was on hand at the UNCG Softball Stadium.


Kami Dunn’s clutch two-out hit ended up plating both runs as the Cougars rallied for a 3-2 victory over Midway and a two-game sweep of the state 2-A finals. 


The Cougars, who finished the season 23-7 after going 8-1 in postseason play, captured their fifth state softball title and the first since 2010. They put themselves one win away from a title with a resounding 13-0, five-inning win in Game 1 Friday night.


“There is no quit in this group,” coach Toby Strider said. “Indescribable. The support from the community who has invested in these kids. I can’t say enough about these kids.”


Macie Crutchfield, who continued her stellar high school career with a pair of wins from the circle, was named the most outstanding player after hurling 12 innings, allowing two runs and seven hits (including a one-hitter in Game 1), with three walks, 19 strikeouts and two hit batters.


After the easy win in Game 1 in which the Cougars racked up 17 hits in a run-ruled five innings, things were a little tougher against freshman hurler Kylie Stonerock, who walked all three batters she faced Friday night. It was different on Saturday.


Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Hayleigh Thompson lined a one-out single up the middle and was replaced by Marion. After a strikeout for the second out of the inning, Smith slapped a single past the third baseman to put two runners on and keep the Cougars alive. Dunn then ripped a single into left field, scoring Marion, and Smith was right behind after seeing the ball get away from the catcher.


“I saw the ball past her and I said. ‘This is it, this is my chance to go in,’ ” Smith said. “I peaked when I was rounding and I saw it got past her.”


Strider said there was no doubt he was sending Smith home on the play.


“We work on base running every day,” Strider said. “It wasn’t a thought, it was a reaction. I was saying go and Madelyn was going. There was no hesitation from either of us. When you're facing good pitching, you are not going to get but so many opportunities and you have to make them make mistakes.”


The Raiders made that one and the Cougars made them pay.


“When we were on the infield, I was thinking we were going to end it,” Dunn said of the Cougars’ final at-bat. “I think the one big thing about us is that we never give up. We have the last at-bat. This is right where we want them.


“I was thinking whoever was on second, wow, she’s going home and then I saw Madelyn scoring when I got to second base,” Dunn added. “I was crying. I was so happy.”


Crutchfield, who was dominant in Game 1, surrendered six hits in Game 2, but recorded 10 strikeouts, including the last five batters she faced.


“It's an unbelievable feeling,” Crutchfield said. “Unlike any feeling I ever will feel. We practiced the whole year for this. When we came into the season, there was a chance to be state champs and we knew that and we worked for that. We had a down time when we lost three games in one week, but we recovered from that. Toby has made us more confident.”


Though Crutchfield was a deserving MOP, there were a number of other players who certainly could have won that honor. Smith was 4-for-7 with two runs and two RBIs, Dunn was 4-for-8 with three runs scored and two RBIs, Alyssa Harris was 4-for-7 with three runs scored and two doubles and Maddie Strider was 4-for-7 with three doubles and five RBIs.


“Amazing, surreal, just incredible,” said Strider, the daughter of the head coach. “Yesterday we hit the ball really well. We hit the ball today, it wasn’t as good as yesterday, but we made it work. We played a lot of tight ball games and a lot of extra-inning games this year.”


The Cougars were 4-3 in one-run games and played three extra-inning affairs, including a 2-1 13-inning victory in Game 2 of the West Regional Finals series.


Midway (21-5) scored its first run of the championship series in the fourth inning Saturday. A hit batter, single, sacrifice bunt and fielder’s choice gave Midway a 1-0 lead. A single by Crutchfield, a double by Strider and a groundout from Micah Wilson tied the game in the SWR half of the fourth.


Midway had three hits in the sixth to break the tie and set up the wild finish.


“Being in that situation so many times prepared us,” Smith said. “Having intense games over the past few weeks and that’s what we had right here.”


Intense indeed.