RINGGOLD, Ga. — To most high school softball fans in the know in Georgia, Tuesday's matchup at Heritage easily could have been for all the marbles.
Instead, the Generals and Eastside, with a combined 46 wins, only eight losses and two elite pitchers, met in a GHSA Class AAAA second-round best-of-three series.
Behind 16 scoreless, three-hit, 24-strikeout innings from Rachel Gibson, Heritage swept its way into the Elite Eight in Columbus next week with wins of 1-0 in nine innings and 2-0.
"There are two unbelievable teams in that region, and we knew if we were one or two in our region we would match up with one of them in this round," Heritage coach Tanner Moore said. "They are an awesome team and we hate it that we had to meet up in the second round, because that meant one really good team isn't going to Columbus."
Gibson and Eastside star Kailey Rusk matched zeros over the first eight innings of game one. Rusk, headed to North Georgia College, allowed only two hits through the first six innings, while Gibson, still just a junior, retired the first 18 batters before allowing a seventh-inning single. After escaping a small jam in that inning, Gibson watched as her teammates used a walk to Riley KoKinda, a stolen base and two intentional walks to load the bases with one out.
Rusk, though, struck out Gibson and Lexi Duckett to end the threat, sending it to extra innings. In the ninth, the same situation came up for the Generals after KoKinda led off with a double. Rusk intentionally walked Carmen Gailer, Medaline Stone sacrificed the runners to third and second, and Bailey Davis was walked to lead the bases again for Gibson.
This time Gibson made the Eagles pay with a single to center to end it.
"It was one of those things where I just needed to clear my head," said Gibson, who allowed one hit and struck out 13 in game one. "They got on base for me, so I was going to do everything I could do to win. I didn't even realize it was the same as the last time I batted. Coach Moore just told me to breathe and just do something for my team."
Gibson gave up a little more contact in the second game but stranded three runners in scoring position. Offensively, the Generals also had more luck with Rusk, taking a 1-0 lead in the third inning on Zoe Wright's RBI double and striking out only once in the first three innings.
"We had a rough approach in the first game," Moore said. "We went in wanting to shoot the ball the other way and wait on the ball up. Well, we swung at a lot of balls up. But they kept grinding and Rachel found a way. In the second game we followed the plan better."
Heritage (25-6) added a run in the fifth on a heads-up play by Bailey Christol. With runners on second and first with one out, Christol pushed a bunt past a drawn-in Eastside infield to score Savannah Wilson from second.
"I didn't call for a push bunt, but that was an unbelievable play after seeing how they were crashing in," Moore said. "That's what those girls do. Credit Bailey on that for being so aware of what was going on."
Eastside had its best scoring opportunity in the sixth after Ava Anglin doubled with one out, went to third on a wild pitch and Lauren Barnett walked. Barnett attempted to steal second, but Heritage catcher Madeline Stone cut her down for the second out. One pitch later Gibson struck out cleanup hitter Rusk to end the threat.
"I don't think they had speed on first, and maybe they were thinking we were not going to throw down," Moore said. "If they get the run, they get the run, but Madeline has a strong arm and she puts it on the mark all the time. That was a two-pitch swing to get two outs, and when you are able to grab momentum back like that it's so deflating."
Gibson needed only nine pitches in the seventh to strike out all three Eastside hitters to end the sweep in style.
* LaFayette's Class AAAA doubleheader at Hampton was postponed until today at 4 due to rain. Ringgold hosts Tattnall County and Calhoun travels to Rutland for Class AAA second-round doubleheaders. Gordon Lee hosts Telfair County and Trion welcomes ACE Charter in Class A public, while Christian Heritage visits George Walton in Class A private action.
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296; follow on Twitter @youngsports22.