Canes let state playoff berth slip away
Defense may win championships but a lack of defense certainly prevents a team from competing for them. That’s the lesson the Cartersville softball team learned the hard way Tuesday.
Five errors proved too much for the Canes to overcome, as the team let a 5-1 lead and a berth in the Class 4A state playoffs slip away in a 7-6 loss to Chapel Hill at the Cartersville Baseball Complex.
“First of all, you thank them and appreciate them for everything they gave you,” Cartersville head coach Shannon Suarez said of her message after the team’s season-ending loss. “No matter what the outcome was, these girls worked hard for us all year. They deserved to be here in this game tonight. We hated how it turned out, but that doesn’t overshadow everything they put into this season and this team.”
The matchup represented Game 3 of a Region 5-AAAA tournament series between the fourth-seeded Canes and No. 5 seed Panthers. The two teams split a doubleheader Monday, with Chapel Hill winning 2-0 in Game 1 and Cartersville rolling 15-4 in Game 2.
In the early stages, Tuesday’s meeting looked like it would be a repeat of Monday’s nightcap.
After the Panthers (7-21) scored once in the top of the first, the Canes (14-13) received a two-run double by Cio Seigler. It was the second straight game that Seigler provided a go-ahead hit after her two-run homer Monday gave Cartersville an identical 2-1 lead.
It appeared another possible rout would be in the cards in the bottom of the second.
With two outs, Lauren McElhaney hit a sinking liner to right field that got by the outfielder. Kiley Arnold scored easily from second, Elizabeth Nelson raced around from first and McElhaney busted it around the bases, sliding home just ahead of the throw for an inside-the-park homer.
Soon after, the defensive wheels started to come off for Cartersville.
A two-out grounder to third base should have ended the third inning with no runs scored. However, Hope Short’s throw got past Rylie Harris at first base, allowing two runs to score. After a late throw home, McElhaney made the ill-advised decision to throw to third. The throw got away, allowing the batter to score a Little League homer to pull within 5-4.
Harris dropped a popup to begin the fifth inning before a single and walk loaded the bases with no outs. Seigler fielded a grounder and got a force at home. Arnold tried to repeat the play, but the umpire ruled her throw was a half-second late to McElhaney. With the game tied, Arnold fielded a slow roller and opted to get the sure out at first, as the go-ahead run scored.
Down 6-5, Cartersville left the bases loaded in the fifth inning, but the Canes put together a two-out rally in the sixth. Campbell Rogers singled ahead of McElhaney’s clutch RBI double to tie the game.
Parity was short lived, though, as Chapel Hill hit three singles in the top of the seventh. With the bases loaded, Cartersville pitcher McKinley Chada couldn’t cleanly field a comebacker, allowing the Panthers to go back ahead. Chada limited the damage, as the freshman coaxed a foul popup and flyout to right.
Anna Kate McElhaney started the bottom of the seventh with a single, but she was ultimately stranded at second base. Epitomizing the Canes’ struggles driving in runs, McElhaney reached in all four at bats (two singles, walk and HBP) and didn’t score once.
“We expanded the zone, we weren’t being selective and we started popping pitches up,” Suarez said of the offense. “That’s what happens. You get overanxious … trying to do too much. I think that played a big part in it, and it was costly for us.”
Senior Lauren McElhaney went 3-for-4 with a walk, two runs scored and four RBIs in her final game for Cartersville. Nelson and Seigler each went 2-for-4 with the former scoring twice and the latter driving in two runs.
Along with McElhaney, Seigler and Short saw their Canes softball careers come to a close Tuesday.
“They’ve done a lot in their four years,” Suarez said of the seniors. “They came in as freshmen on a pretty great team that went to the Sweet 16. They learned a lot and that showed over their time, maturing and growing as leaders for this team. They’ve done nothing but great things for us. I was real thankful to them and appreciate them for the time and effort they’ve put in on and off the field.
“It’s hard for them. They played hard for four years, and to see it happen like this — for our defense to let us down the way it did — it’s a tough one to swallow.”
While the team missed out on its first state playoff appearance since 2016, Cartersville should have an excellent chance to get over the hump in the coming years. The team is set to return a large sophomore class that gained plenty of experience at the varsity level, along with a few other standout underclassmen.
“We have a lot of talent still sitting here on this team,” Suarez said. “Our seniors did a great job of teaching them right, showing them what leadership is, what hard work is and what commitment is.
“I feel great about what we have coming back and even how they’ve progressed since May, when this team was made, until tonight. They’ve come a long way, and the future is bright. We’ve got to stick together, continue to put in work in the offseason and just keep getting better. Hopefully, in the future, we get past this night.”