Northside-Pinetown strikes first against East Wilkes in 1A softball championship series

Northside-Pinetown strikes first against East Wilkes in 1A softball championship series

Emaleigh Cherry couldn’t have picked a better time to blast her first home run of the season — and when it landed, the Northside-Pinetown Panthers were one step closer to their first state softball crown in school history.

After four scoreless innings, Cherry, with two teammates on base, ripped a 1-2 pitch over the left-field fence for a three-run longball that ultimately gave the 13th-seeded Panthers a 3-0 decision over top-seeded East Wilkes Friday’s Game One of the Class 1-A State Championships at the Duke University Softball Complex.

Northside (22-4) can sweep the title with a victory in Game Two on Saturday at 11 a.m. An if-necessary matchup would be played at 5 p.m.

East Wilkes (27-4) stranded five runners on base through the first four frames, including a bases-loaded situation in the bottom of the second that Panthers’ starter Jorden Clark escaped with a clutch strikeout.

The Panthers finally broke through in the pitcher’s duel beginning with Megan Hopkins’ first-pitch double to the center-field fence. One out later, Londyn Keech walked to set up Cherry’s homer, which came with two strikes as she found a pitch to her liking and made no mistake, launching the ball comfortable over the wall in left field.

Clark did the rest, limiting the Cardinals, who had scored in double digits 11 times coming in, to just four hits while striking out two — and getting some nifty assistance from Northside’s stern defense.

After Northside gained the lead, East Wilkes put two runners on base in the sixth, but Clark, a senior standout, worked her way out of the jam with a fielder’s choice.

Another Cardinal reached in the bottom of the seventh, but Clark finished the job by inducing a flyout that, once it landed in left-fielder’s Kenan Willard’s glove, sparked a mad celebration near the mound.

But Northside’s work isn’t done as the Panthers seek their initial softball championship in their third try. The Panthers reached the finals in 1999 and 2001, but were thwarted on each occasion, including a crushing one-run loss in the deciding game 23 years ago.

For the Cardinals, it was their first setback this season against a Class 1-A opponent as they swept through the Northwest Conference with 14 straight victories before rolling through a series of playoff foes by a combined score of 52-11.

East Wilkes had two chances in the game with multiple runners in scoring position, but Clark had an answer each time.