By Ray Hamill — You get a sense of deja vu with these Panthers, who defeated Cardinal Newman 2-1 in Wednesday’s NCS Division-4 softball semifinal.
It was their second straight playoff win on a walk-off hit, and they got the better of the same team they beat in the semifinals in 2019 on their way to winning the section championship.
The Panthers will now get the chance to defend that title — there were no playoffs in either of the last two seasons — when they host Fort Bragg in the championship game at Mack High on Friday night.
But it was far from certain.
The McKinleyville bats had problems matching up against Newman pitcher Callie Howard, who kept them in check for much of the game, and the Cardinals led 1-0 going into the bottom of the seventh inning courtesy of a fourth-inning McKenzie Dennis solo home run.
But these Panthers are certainly resilient.
After defeating Fortuna in extra innings in Friday’s quarterfinal, they once again found a way to win a tight game late, rallying to score twice in the bottom of the seventh for a thrilling victory.
“They like to see how much my heart can handle,” joked head coach Shanna McCracken, who added that “they’re very pumped right now. I’m very happy for them and I’m very proud of the way they played as a team.”
Senior Allie Egbert was instrumental in the late rally once again and is closing out her high school career in style.
Against Fortuna, it was Egbert who provided the walk-off hit, and this time she hit a lead-off triple in the bottom of the seventh and would score the tying run moments later on a Taya Gomes RBI single.
And the Panthers weren’t done yet.
With two outs, speedy freshman Bailee Box hit a single and stole her way to second, before being driven home on a Raina Ausburn base hit to center field for the winning run.
Gomes was outstanding and the one McKinleyville player who gave Howard problems all game, finishing 3-for-3 with a double.
“She had a great game,” McCracken said of the junior catcher. “I’m super happy with her performance behind the plate and at the plate.”
She made a key defensive play in the top of the fourth, throwing out a Cardinal Newman base runner attempting to steal second.
The play was particularly crucial because Dennis hit her home run moments later and it ended up being a sole homer instead of a two-run blast.
“She’s just a gamer,” McCracken said of Gomes. “She’s going to show up and give her best every game. Her and (pitcher) Raina had great communication today.”
Ausburn, one of just two seniors on the team, along with Egbert, had another big outing in the circle, in addition to getting the game-winning hit.
“Raina likes hitting in those moments,” McCracken said. “And Bailee’s got wheels.”
Ausburn gave up just two hits and four walks and struck out eight.
A big 5-4-3 double play to end the top of the seventh kept the Panthers within one run and appeared to give them some momentum heading into the bottom half of the inning.
“They feed off those double plays,” McCracken said.
Egbert certainly did and led off the seventh like a senior who doesn’t want her high school career to end just yet.
“She’s just solid,” McCracken said. “She’s consistent and she’s going to get the bat on the ball and she’s going to give her all. And she makes adjustments, and that was huge.”
Kennedy Minton also had a base hit in Wednesday’s win.
The Panthers will now host Fort Bragg on Friday at 5 p.m. in a rematch with the Timberwolves, after splitting a pair of one-run games at Fort Bragg early in the season.
“I think that will be a good game for us,” McCracken said. “We’ve seen them, but it’s been a while. Hopefully we’ll come out and play our game.”