Times Sports Editor
CLAY CITY -- One of the most debated aspects of the IHSAA's blind draw of sectional foes in many sports deals with having two top teams facing each other in the very first round of the postseason. The argument lies in that one talented team immediately has to go home while a team with a lesser record advanced.
On Tuesday, the first round game at the Class A Clay City Sectional featured plenty of talent as No. 8 North Central took on No. 14 Clay City, but one team's season would come to an end.
North Central took home the regular season match-up by a 2-1 score, but in the postseason re-match, the Eels climbed on top in the first inning and held on for a dramatic, 3-2 win to advance to tonight's semifinal against Shakamak following a 5 p.m. match-up between Union and WRV.
"These are two real good teams," Clay City coach Roger Rhodes said of the opening game match-up. "It's tough for two good teams to face each other in the first game. We beat a good team."
North Central came in with a 17-1 record this season and featured a lineup that boasted four players batting better than .450 this season.
Shelby Targett allowed five hits in the game and struck out seven in the contest, but pitched out of several difficult situations.
The Eels gave Targett a cushion to work with in the first inning, stringing together a couple of key hits and being patient enough to draw two walks in the inning to gain the upperhand early.
Tasha Collenbaugh led off the first inning with a single to rightfield and Shaya Stevenson laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. Targett then helped her own cause by sharply grounding a ball off North Central starting pitcher, Ashli Scott's mitt for an infield single. Madison Sullivan then drew a walk to load the bases and freshman Michaela Riggs worked a full count before sending a two-run single up the middle.
"Riggs' had an awesome hit," Rhodes said. "Scoring those early runs relaxed us a little bit and put all the pressure on (North Central)."
Scott was able to get out of the inning without any further damage, getting a force play at the plate on an attempted bunt and getting a strikeout of Allison Carroll to end the inning.
Targett held North Central scoreless until the fourth inning when some defensive miscues set up a run for the T-Birds.
Scott lined out to a leaping Ali Souder in left field for the first out, but Samantha Barbee's flyball to left was dropped for an error. After a strikeout of Sierra Taft for the second out, Adara Crooks grounder to Targett should have been the final out of the inning. However, the ball was dropped at first base and Barbee scampered around to narrow the game to 2-1.
"We made some crucial errors tonight," admitted Rhodes. "But we are starting five freshmen."
North Central threatened again in the fifth inning with two outs as Megan Stone reached on an error and Scott singled off the mitt of a diving Sloan Miller at first base. Barbee was intentionally walked to load the bases, but Targett coaxed a foul ball popup by Taft to end the inning.
Clay City would score an all-important insurance run in the bottom half of the inning as Stevenson walked and moved to second on a passed ball. She would continue around the bases to third on another ball to the backstop and score on another ball that got past the North Central catcher.
Leading 3-1 heading into the seventh inning, the Eels were just three outs away from a sectional victory, but North Central wasn't going away quietly.
Stone lead off the inning but working a full count against Targett. The sophomore, a .463 hitter this season, then sent a laser beam over the leftfield wall to narrow the deficit to 3-2.
The pressure increased as Scott then blooped a single into short right field for a hit. Running the bases aggressively, she advanced twice on the Eels as the ball was being returned to Targett in the circle as Barbee was at the plate.
Clay City intentionally walked Barbee for the second time before the Eels earned the second out on a popup by Taft. Crooks was walked to load the bases with one out and the Eels clinging to a one-run lead.
Rhodes then came out to speak to Targett and his infield before his junior hurler faced Maria Drake.
"I told (Targett) that this is what you play for," Rhodes said. "Your in the spotlight and your in control. She just kind of took over."
Facing Drake, Targett drew a short popup that was halfway in between her and Collenbaugh behind the plate. Targett hustled to the ball and snagged the second out for the Eels, keeping the runners in place.
With two outs, Targett indeed took over, striking out Bree Hathaway for the final out.
"What a game," Rhodes said afterwards. "Our bats kind of broke out tonight and Shelby did her job. Tasha lead us off with two hits tonight and that was big."
Now, the 15-11 Eels get a match-up with the Lakers in tonight's second game with the winner advancing to the sectional title game.
Class A Clay City Softball Sectional
2B -- CC (Collenbaugh), NC (None). HR -- NC (Stone).