SUWANEE -- On a night when it was win or go home for the season, North Gwinnett rose to the occasion with a convincing 4-0 win over Lambert in the first round of the Class AAAAAA softball tournament.
One day removed from a doubleheader split with Lambert that sent emotions and expectations on a rollercoaster ride, North built an early lead and rode some strong starting pitching to clinch the best-of-three series.
North (22-7-1) will move on to face another Gwinnett team in Archer, which swept Etowah, next week in a best-of-three matchup.
Lambert, which had forced Thursday's deciding Game 3 with a win on Wednesday night, finished its season at 23-10.
That made a happy head coach out of North's Randy Black, who knew his team could bounce back after Wednesday's split.
"We told our girls that we knew that we could beat (Lambert) if we just come out and play our game," said Black. "But we also had to remind our team that we knew (Lambert) was capable of beating us. So we looked to our six seniors, who are awesome, for some leadership and I think they did a great job. We got to hit first after we lost the coin toss, so we took advantage of that and got three early runs in the first inning."
With one out, Mallory Koepke singled and scored on Kendall McKinney's double to left-center for a 1-0 North lead. After Draven Sonnon walked two batters later, Moriah Strother drove in McKinney for the second run of the inning. North's third run of the frame came on an error at shortstop as Sonnon crossed the plate.
That would be all that North starting right-hander Kinsley Jennings would need in the circle as the junior shut down Lambert for a complete-game three-hitter while striking out four.
North added an insurance run in the fourth on Koepke's RBI double to plate Amanda Shimmin, who had walked to lead off.
Jennings carried a no-hitter into the fifth until Lambert's Savannah Huffstetler singled to lead off the inning.
Jennings only allowed eight baserunners in the entire game, but her biggest challenge came in the bottom of the sixth.
A pair of one-out singles put runners at first and second, but good defense from Sonnon in centerfield got a force play at second following a line drive and a groundout to short ended the Longhorns' best scoring chance.
North, which did have numerous scoring opportunities to blow the game open, stranded 12 baserunners.
Koepke led the way at the plate for North by going 3-for-3 with a walk and a run scored while Sonnon was 2-for-3 with a walk and one run scored.
Strother was 3-for-4 with three singles and an RBI for North, which pounded out 10 hits in the game.
But the night belonged primarily to Jennings, who improved to 12-0 in the circle and dropped her earned run average to 1.74.
"I definitely had all my pitches working and my change was real good," said Jennings. "I want the ball in big games because I can handle the pressure and I know my defense will be there to support me. It was huge to get those three runs early and it helped me to relax and took the weight out off my shoulders. We know, after last night, that it's just one game at a time and now we get to move on (to face Archer)."