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Story by Torsheta Jackson
Photos by Brad Bridges
Brandon dashed Northwest Rankin’s dream of a clean sweep Saturday night. The Lady Dogs defeated the Lady Cougars 9-7 in the ninth inning at Brandon to send the series to a decisive third game in the MHSAA Class 6A softball playoffs.
Game 3 is scheduled for Monday at 6 p.m. at Northwest Rankin.
“Brandon’s really good,” said Northwest Rankin coach Mike Armstrong. “In the last six times we’ve played, it’s come down to one run four out of the six. Three times this year, it’s been a one run game and extra innings twice.”
The win was a major confidence booster for Brandon who has battled injuries in the last few weeks. The Lady Dogs are playing without their senior starting pitcher Cara Biswell. Their backup pitcher Abigail Rogers was hit on the hand and was out for several games.
“We’ve had to move people around, put different people on the mound and play people in different positions,” said Brandon head coach Heidi Hill. “We’ve had some ups and downs with people trying to find their footing. So for us to do what we did last night makes it all come together. It’s what you want to happen in the playoffs.”
The Brandon and Northwest matchup pits two of the state’s best teams against each other early in the playoffs.
“It’s a tough draw for both of us to meet up in the second round,” Armstrong said. “MaxPreps has us number 1 and Brandon number 5 but 6A South is tough this year.”
Top-ranked Northwest Rankin started the game with two quick runs by Brooke Smith and Sydney Phillips. Phillips, the team’s only senior, has signed with East Central Community College to play catcher.
“She is very versatile,” Armstrong said. “She has started at all nine positions at some point since her eighth-grade year. She is going to be greatly missed.”
Northwest Rankin pitcher Jolie Hays found herself in trouble early. Brandon’s lead-off hitter, Hannah Jo Sullivan answered on the first at bat with a homerun. An errant pitch and a walk advanced two more runners. Hays survived the inning giving up only one run, but Brandon would continue to dominate. Sullivan, an 8th grader, sent another homer sailing into the outfield giving the Lady Dogs two more runs and junior Ariel Davis’s solo homer added a third sending Brandon up 4-2 by the bottom of the third.
“Jolie shut Brandon down the first time in March but since then she cracked a bone in her finger so she is not quite as sharp,” Armstrong said. “They have hit on her a little bit better since then.”
After a scoreless fourth inning, Northwest Rankin found their footing in the fifth. The Lady Cougars picked up 3 runs to take a quick lead before the NWR catcher’s sweeping catch at home barely missed allowing Brandon to tie the game at 5.
“This team never quits,” Armstrong said. “With this team, you never feel like you are out of it.”
That fight seemed to fluster the Lady Dogs late in the game. With bases loaded and one out, Northwest Rankin hit a ground ball to Rogers on the mound. Rogers threw home for the out. The catcher then threw to first trying to get the double but missed allowing the go-ahead runner to score.
“We don’t get the out at one and she scores, and they go ahead of us by one,” Hill said. “It was just a mental mistake on our part. We made some mistakes on the defensive side and we are going to have to fix that before Monday night.”
Down in the bottom of the 7th inning, the Lady Dogs had two strikes and two outs. With the game on the line, Davis slams a ball to right center to tie the game.
A major defensive effort by Northwest Rankin’s Hays sent the game into extra innings. The sophomore caught a high drive into left field to secure the third out.
“She became the left fielder when she came off the mound,” Armstrong said. “That ball was going out and they would have won it right there. That’s Jolie and how versatile she is. Our best pitcher made a game saving catch.”
The first extra inning saw each team score one run. The Lady Cougars would need a big defensive stop to win the game in the ninth inning. They did not get it. Sullivan, who was four of four on the night and had two stolen bases, drove in a runner with a walk-off homer to seal the game.
“Brandon is a very good hitting team,” said Armstrong. “I think we are better defensively, but they probably swing it better and harder up and down the lineup.”
The win was a massive offensive effort for Brandon. The loss marked only the fifth of the season for Northwest Rankin who went undefeated in district play. Before Saturday’s loss, the Lady Cougars had only given up 44 runs the entire season.
Both teams are looking forward to Monday’s matchup.
“We are pretty even,” said Armstrong. “If we played ten times it would probably be 5 us and 5 them. It’s going to come down to whoever gets the stop and whoever gets the hits and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
“This is a big rivalry. One of the biggest in Mississippi sports. Knowing that and what’s on the line makes it intense,” added Hill. “There is no other way around it. It’s going to be a battle.”
The winner of Monday’s game will advance to the South State playoffs to play Gulfport.