MOORESVILLE--Dry eyes were few, if any, when members of the Mooresville softball team dispersed from the post-game huddle on the field.
The road to perhaps a historic state championship met a dead end Friday night in Game 3 of the 4A West region finals. South Caldwell homered in the top of the ninth inning and held on for a 1-0 victory to clinch the series, 2-1.
"Just one win shy," shrugged Blue Devils coach Paul Kikta.
South Caldwell (23-4), seeded fifth in the West, advanced to its second straight 4A state championship and will face East region champion Wilmington Hoggard (19-7) next week in the best-of-3 series.
A year ago, the Spartans swept Richmond County in the West finals on their way to a state runner-up finish.
"You can't put into words what it means for kids to have been there and done that in these situations," South Caldwell coach Casey Justice said.
BREAKING THE DEADLOCK
It was more of a defensive duel Friday than games one and two, which the teams split.
Regan Weisner emerged as the difference maker. The sophomore second baseman homered to left-center in the top of the ninth for the game's only run. Mooresville center fielder Imara Harrell tracked the ball to the portable fence and fell through it trying to make the grab.
It was Weisner's state-leading 16th homer of the season on an otherwise 0-for-3 night against the third-seeded Blue Devils (27-5), who lost at home for only the second time this spring.
"She had gotten a hit in every game this season before the (fourth-round win) over Providence," Justice said. "Then she went into a little slump in this series. I don't know if it was that she was due. I just wanted to see her keep having a good season and keep putting the barrel on the ball."
Mariah Pearson led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk and advanced to second on a wild pitch. The Blue Devils were unable to bring her home for the game-tying run, though.
IN THE CIRCLE
Anna King was the winning pitcher for South Caldwell, which eliminated Mooresville on a two-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the seventh of the state quarterfinals last season. The junior allowed only two hits and four walks. She struck out five.
Mooresville junior Kali Morton was the hard-luck losing pitcher. She gave up just three hits and two walks while striking out four.
"We fought a great team for nine innings," Kikta said, "and Kali pitched a helluva game."
The Blue Devils led off the bottom of the sixth and seventh innings with singles from Macy Martin and Ellie Goins, respectively.
Cassidy Amon and Caitlyn Mann immediately followed with well-executed sacrifice bunts to move them into scoring position with one out.
Pearson drew a two-out walk in the sixth, but as she made her way to first base the Spartans picked off pinch runner D'nahjah Harrell, who was on her way to third base. That ended the threat.
In the seventh Jentri Meadows earned a free pass on balls, and she and Goins both were in scoring position with two outs following a passed ball.
King got Imara Harrell to fly out to third base to force extra innings.
"We couldn't get that key hit when we had girls on second," Kikta said.
Both teams made some top-notch plays on defense.
Pearson, Mooresville's left fielder, robbed Ciara Hanson of a two-run homer at the fence in left-center thanks to a sensational grab in the fourth inning.
Blue Devils second baseman Hailey Lane made a long run into foul territory down the first-base line to end the top of the sixth. And then there was Imara Harrell's extra effort to no avail on Weisner's fence-clearing shot.
"That's a great softball team," Justice said of Mooresville. "It's probably the most athletic team I've seen in my six years here (at South Caldwell), especially in the outfield. Mariah and Imara made some great plays."
THAT'S A WRAP
The Blue Devils bid farewell to an extremely successful senior class that led them to the state quarterfinals in 2017--a first for the program--and 2018. They got over that hurdle this season, beating Hickory Ridge 9-3 in that round to earn their first region finals appearance.
It looked like they might take the next step, too, after a nine-run victory in the series opener with South Caldwell. But it wasn't to be. The Spartans evened the series Wednesday in Hudson with a 6-3 victory and then completed the comeback Friday.
Seeking a way to soften the hurt, Kikta said he would remember this season for his players' "fight, their energy, and the euphoria" because "we had some great wins."