By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON — The South Effingham-Effingham County softball rivalry is like a good book you can’t put down.
Each chapter compels you to keep reading.
Each softball game between the Mustangs and Rebels elevates similar anticipation.
Game 3 in the regular-season trilogy arrived Thursday with only one certainty — the winner would be the Region 2-AAAAAA champion.
South won the first meeting, ECHS the second. Through six innings Thursday, the third game was tied.
“All three games have been max stressful but it’s been fun to have those back-and-forth games,” said SEHS righthander Bailey Kendziorski, moments after the Mustangs pushed a run across the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning for a dramatic walk-off 1-0 victory.
The region championship was South’s second after moving up to Class AAAAAA three years ago and meant the Mustangs (21-4) will host a four-team, double-elimination super regional Oct. 18-19.
“We’re super proud of (the girls),” SEHS coach Adam Newland said. “We wanted to control our emotions all night. We knew the game would feature a lot of emotional swings, but if we kept at it and stayed the course we’d be able to get there in the end. We’re proud the first round of state comes through South Effingham.”
The Mustangs produced the decisive run when Peighton Capwell led off the seventh with a single. Madison Mills bunted her to second. Emma Darrow followed with an infield grounder and an errant throw allowed Capwell to score.
That’s all the run support Kendziorski needed. The junior righthander, who has allowed just one earned run in her last 63 innings, struck out five, walked one and surrendered only two hits. She retired 19 in a row from the first inning until Caleigh Eubanks’ single in the seventh.
“I told (pitching coach Jesse Osborne), who did a great job calling pitches, that I thought this was her best performance of the year,” Newland said. “After the first inning, she was really on it. She had really good stuff tonight and it was a heck of a time for it.”
Kendziorski and the Mustangs skirted adversity in the first inning. ECHS loaded the bases with no outs but twice failed to execute squeeze bunts successfully. The second bunt landed in fair territory inches in front of the plate and catcher Jaden Burns stepped on home and fired to first for an inning-ending double play.
“I just had to keep calm, bases loaded, you know, anything can happen,” Kendziorski said. “I didn’t want to give up anything. I was like, ‘Let’s not start 1-0 their way in the very first inning.’
“Before the game, our energy was so high and I think that just (getting out of the inning unscored) amplified it times 10.”
ECHS coach Brad Thompson had hoped for the exact opposite effect. The Rebels beat Kendziorski 1-0 in 10 innings Sept. 19. They were blanked 3-0 in the first meeting Sept. 13.
“All week, we talked about executing a squeeze bunt,” Thompson said. “It’s crazy how it came up in the first inning. I didn’t know if one run would win the game. I just wanted to put some pressure on (SEHS) right away.”
The Mustangs applied the pressure the rest of the way. Burns had three hits to pace an 11-hit attack. Darrow and Mills had two hits apiece.
But getting a runner home against Rebels pitcher Rylee Mills was another story. Three SEHS players were thrown out on the basepaths and Shelby Aiken made two run-saving catches in center field.
The Mustangs had two doubles and a single in the sixth inning but failed to score.
“We were getting (on base) every inning so we were bound to score,” Kendziorski said. “Granted, it was a little stressful.”
Frustrating might sum up the Rebels’ night. ECHS (22-4) fell to a No. 2 seed in the region and will be on the road in Covington (at host Alcovy, the Region 3 champ) for its super regional.”
“You’re not going to win a championship game with two hits,” Thompson said. “We didn’t lose the game because of an error. We want to win every game, but our aspirations were higher than just winning tonight.”
And maybe a fourth chapter to the story can be written in Columbus, site of the eight-team state championship tourney.