CLOVER — Trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the third inning in a second-round playoff game, the Clover High School softball team’s power surge sent shock waves through defending state champion Hillcrest and its fans.
Brittany Rhinehardt got things started with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch.
After Brooke Rhinehardt drew a walk, Blake Wallert’s well-executed bunt advanced the runners to second and third with one out.
Power-hitting Marisa Harkey stepped to the plate and belted a three-run homer high and deep over the left-centerfield fence, knotting the score at 3-all and sending Blue Eagle fans into a frenzy.
Harkey was mobbed at home plate by jubilant teammates.
Following Harkey’s third-inning blast could have been a difficult task. But Madison Tepfenhart, the Lady Blue Eagle catcher whose late-season hitting barrage has left opposing pitchers perplexed, drove the ball high and deep over the left-centerfield fence in much the same manner as Harkey.
“It was exciting, hitting the ball out behind Marisa,” Tepfenhart said of back-to-back home runs that propelled Clover to a 4-3 lead.
Harkey said she stepped to the plate in the third inning with the idea of putting the bat on the ball. “I just wanted to make contact with runners on base and get the runs home,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if the ball would clear the fence, but it did. It was a blessing.”
Ace hurler Elizabeth Edmunds couldn’t say enough about her teammates after the game. “Marisa and Madison’s home runs boosted my confidence,” said Edmunds.
The atmosphere in Blue Eagle Country was electric, bordering on chaotic.
The Lady Blue Eagles had regained the lead in dramatic fashion. Drawing from the momentum boost in the previous inning, the CHS girls expanded the lead in inning four.
Clover loaded the bases on Paige Wallert’s single, an infield hit by Brooke Rhinehardt and an error.
This set the stage for Harkey, who delivered a two-run single. A third run crossed the plate when the Clover runner dislodged the ball from the Hillcrest catcher.
To its credit, Hillcrest put the bat on the ball in the fifth inning, slicing Clover’s lead to 7-5. But the Lady Blue Eagles tacked on another run and held on down the stretch for the 8-5 win.
Head coach Shea Hall lauded the players. “The kids are getting what they deserve,” she said. “I am proud of them.”
Hall said the back-to-back home runs were huge. “That’s something you read about,” she said.
Hall said the dramatic win was special, especially against a team the caliber of visiting Hillcrest.
“You earn respect when you beat a team like Hillcrest,” Hall said. “I’m not taking anything away from the teams in our region. Hillcrest is the defending state champion.”
The Lady Blue Eagles held off a dangerous Northwestern team in the first round of the playoffs, prevailing 3-1 at home. Clover assumed a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Brooke Rhinehardt tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Blake Wallert.
With the score tied at 1-1 in the top of the third inning, Clover left-fielder Katie Lee’s diving catch of a line drive erased a scoring threat by Northwestern that would have given the Lady Trojans the lead.
“When the ball came off the bat, I knew I had a chance to get to it,” Lee said. “I also knew if the ball got by me, Northwestern would score a run. I knew the center-fielder would back me up.”
Lee said it was a relief when the ball landed in her glove. “Elizabeth was pitching a great game,” she noted. “She needed our support.”
Hall talked about the game-changing defensive gem after the game. “Katie made a great catch,” the CHS coach said. “The ball was hit hard. It could’ve led to a big inning for Northwestern had she not made the catch.”
Hall noted that Lee didn’t start last year but had a good attitude and kept working to earn a starting position. “I am happy for her,” she said.
Clover pushed across the decisive runs in the third inning. Blake Wallert walked, Harkey singled and Tepfenhart drew a walk to load the bases.
Two runs were scored when the Northwestern third-baseman was unable to glove a ground ball by Emily Robinson that made it to left field.
“Our kids played good defense in key situations and Elizabeth pitched like she has all year,” Hall said. “They came into the game hyped and ready to play. Our players were composed.”
The Lady Blue Eagles were scheduled to play Mauldin or Hillcrest at home Wednesday in a third-round playoff game. The opponent had yet to be determined when the Enquirer-Herald went to press this week.