By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD -- Coming into Tuesday’s softball game with rival South Effingham, Effingham County coach Jane Trzaska noticed a few things about her star pitcher Rylee Mills.
“She had that intensity, that focus, that smile,” Trzaska said.
After eight dramatic innings, Mills sported an even bigger smile.
The junior hurled a two-hitter and Emma Reynolds’ sacrifice fly produced the walk-off, game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth to give the Rebels a stunning 2-1 victory over the visiting Mustangs.
Mills struck out seven, walked one and had only two balls hit out of the infield. She coaxed 13 ground ball outs and had three line drives hit at infielders -- one liner was turned into a double play to erase the only SEHS baserunner after the third inning.
Mustang pitcher Bailey Kendziorski matched Mills through seven innings. The sophomore wiggled out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth inning and stranded four Rebels in scoring position.
ECHS broke the deadlock in the eighth inning. With one out, Caleigh Eubanks tripled off the glove of Kaley Stone in center. Reynolds followed with a fly ball down the left-field line, plenty deep enough to drive in Eubanks.
“We’ve been preparing ourselves for this game,” Mills said. “It meant more after the last one. We all came out strong and ready to win.”
The two schools have been among the area’s elite softball programs for a long time. ECHS won four straight in the head-to-head series before the Mustangs broke the streak with a dramatic 1-0 victory last season behind Bailey Kendziorski’s tidy one-hitter.
South seemingly began to widen the gap between the rivals. The Mustangs beat the Rebels 5-1 in the region tournament’s winners bracket, then won 7-1 to clinch the tournament championship.
This season, SEHS defeated ECHS 9-1 in a game stopped in the sixth inning because of the mercy rule.
“This was obviously a huge win,” Trzaska said. “It definitely gives us some momentum moving forward in our region (tournament) and games coming up. It shows the girls how well they can play and how they can fight until the end. We want to build off this.”
If Trzaska is looking for material to build from, the 18-wheeler from Home Depot just arrived. The Rebels (7-5, 4-3 Region 2-AAAAAA) beat a team that was ranked No. 7 in Class AAAAAA by Score Atlanta.
SEHS (12-4, 6-1) entered the game with a five-game winning streak and had outscored region opponents 53-6.
“We just didn’t hit well,” Mustangs coach Jessica Evans said. “We let this environment be bigger than us and that was part of the problem. Our kids are learning. It is what it is and games like this are going to get us better.”