CONYERS — Heritage softball has grown accustomed to playing behind early in their first three games to start the season.
In each of their last two games, the Patriots trailed big after just one half inning of play. The Patriots managed to overcome a 9-0 deficit against South Gwinnett last Saturday before winning 25-11.
On Thursday in their Region 3-AAAAAA opener against cross-county rival Alcovy, the story was much the same after the Patriots rallied from a 4-0 hole to win 11-7.
“It’s not what we wanted, but I think down the road we’ll look back at this game and really appreciate what we did as far as fighting back to position ourselves for the top tier of the region,” First-year head coach Clay Ardeeser said.
The Patriots were led by pitcher Kennedy Stephens, who tossed all seven innings. The junior held the Tigers to eight hits, four of which came in the games’ first inning. Of Stephens’ seven runs allowed, only one was earned, thanks to seven errors by the Patriots defense.
“Errors killed us,” Ardeeser said. “(Kennedy) threw a really good game. She only had one earned run. She just continues to work through it. She struggled a little bit with 2-strike pitching. (Alcovy) got a couple of hits with two strikes, but other than that, she threw a pretty good game.”
The Tigers, much like they have all season, wasted little time scoring against the Patriots after Gwyn Lee led of the inning taking a pitch to her side. Laci Thompson promptly laced a single to right before Janae Bellamy (2-for-4) brought both home on a single to right.
Jada Brown (2-for-4) gave the Tigers a 3-0 advantage after an infield single brought home Bellamy. After loading the bases with two outs, another infield single, this time from KeKe Gibson (2-for-4), extended the Alcovy lead to 4-0.
The Patriots’ defense made two errors in the inning, resulting in all four runs going unearned for Stephens.
With Brown set to make her third start of the season in the circle for the Tigers, Alayna Crutchfield (3-for-4) cut the Tigers’ lead in half with a 2-RBI single to left that scored both Stephens and Makenzie Pugh.
The Tigers extended their lead to 5-2 in the second inning on an RBI single to right off the bat of Lexie McDonald that scored Thompson before the Patriots answered back with two more runs of their own.
After singling to center and stealing both second and third base, Heritage’s Camryn Caldwell came home to score on an RBI single to right from freshman Syerra Palmer (2-for-3). Naylah Williams later brought home Palmer on a groundout to shortstop, cutting the lead to 5-4 after two.
A one-out triple from Gibson failed to translate into a run for the Tigers in the third, who later saw their one-run lead disappear on a Brown wild pitch that scored Crutchfield.
Mackenzie Rodgers (3-for-4) quickly gave the Tigers the lead back, 6-5 on an RBI double to left that scored Bellamy from first, but failed to add on from there, setting up an eventual four-run inning by the Patriots.
Leadoff hitter Cameron Hodges (2-for-4) gave the Patriots their first lead of the game on a 2-RBI single to right before Stephens hit a sacrifice fly to center. Pugh later picked up an RBI on a groundout, giving the Patriots a 9-6 lead after four innings.
“I knew our offense was going to be good this year,” Ardeeser said. “We have a special kind of offense because we have a good mix of girls that can hit doubles and triples. We have girls that can do that, but our speed is top-tier. Probably one of the best in the state and definitely the best in the region.
The Tigers managed to cut the lead to 9-7 on the Patriots’ seventh error of the game, but could get no closer. The Patriots tacked on two more insurance runs in the sixth before Stephens shut the door with a clean 1-2-3 seventh inning.
Ardeeser said after the game that his team took the Tigers lightly, a team that has had its fair share of tough breaks thus far in 2019. The Tigers dropped their first four region games to start the season prior to Thursday’s loss.
“I think we took this game a little lightly,” Ardeeser said. “I don’t think we really respected (Alcovy) enough. That’s a good ball club and if you don’t come out here and play your best game, they’ll beat you. That was some bad juju on our part by coming out here and doing that. But once we kind of settled down, we were good to go.”
The Patriots finished the game with eight stolen bases with seven different players each recording one in the victory.
“We use (our speed) to our advantage,” Ardeeser said. “We run around and steal bases like crazy. We create havoc for teams and try to put them in awkward spots where they don’t know what to do with the ball. If you run that kind of offense to a successful level, you don’t even have to hit the ball for base hits as much. As long as you put the ball in play and let your speed work, you can still have a good offense.”
While Ardeeser was pleased with the Patriots’ work at the plate, it’s their defense that hopes will improve as the season continues.
“If we make plays, we’re one of the best teams in the region,” Ardeeser said. “If we don’t, we’re not a team, but we won’t be as good as we can be. To meet that full potential, we have to come out here and make plays. We work on defense every day in practice. We know that’s what our achilles heel is right now. It’s just making plays.”
With the loss, the Tigers fall to 0-5 in region play, three of which have resulted in losses by three runs or fewer. The Tigers were swept by Lakeside, 12-10, 12-11 last week.
Alcovy head coach Miranda Lamb wore her emotions on her sleeve after Thursday’s loss to Heritage.
“We’re not focused at all,” Lamb said. “I’m going to start looking at some junior varsity girls, for sure. They played Lamar County today and capable or not, if they have the heart, I want them out here because I’m not getting that from my girls.”