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Hawks strike early, often to down Grayson 6-0

Staff Photo: John Bohn Mill Creek catcher Emilee Lawrence (10) and third baseman Morgan Bell (24) pursue a foul ball hit by Grayson's Breanna Ethrige during the first inning of a playoff softball game Thrusday. Bell made the catch.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Mill Creek catcher Emilee Lawrence (10) and third baseman Morgan Bell (24) pursue a foul ball hit by Grayson's Breanna Ethrige during the first inning of a playoff softball game Thrusday. Bell made the catch.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Grayson base runner Taylor Denton (44) is tagged out while attempting to steal second base, by Mill Creek short stop Lauren Bennett (6) during the first inning of a playoff softball game Thursday.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Grayson third baseman Carly Batchelor (8) keeps her eyes on a short infield pop fly hit by Mill Creek's Christina Evans during the second inning of a playoff softball game Thursday. Batchelor made the catch.

LOGANVILLE -- After dealing with plenty of late-inning drama during the first two games of their second-round Class AAAAAA playoff doubleheader against Grayson a night earlier, Mill Creek struck earlier during the deciding game of the best-of-three series.

The Hawks scored five times during the middle innings this time, with Morgan Bell driving in three of them, to grab a 6-0 win Thursday at Grayson.

"I was extremely proud of the effort," Mill Creek coach Roger Parham said after the Hawks (22-13-1) earned their fifth trip to the state tournament in Columbus in the last seven years. "Our preparation was extremely good. The mindset was excellent coming over here (Thursday). It was very loose, but yet intense and passionate."

Much of the offensive damage was done by the top of the Hawks' batting order, which struck for seven of the team's eight hits and drove in five of the six runs.

Bell (3-for-3, three RBIs) delivered two of the biggest blows with a two-run home run during a three-run third inning and RBI single in a two-run fourth that helped Mill Creek break the game open.

Still, it was Grayson (20-16-1), which was the designated visiting team after Mill Creek won the pregame coin toss, that actually had the first scoring opportunity after Taylor Denton reached on an error to lead off the game.

Even after the senior shortstop was thrown out trying to steal, the Rams seemed in business after Sierra Smith's single and Stephanie Snyder's walk put runners on first and second with just one out.

But Heather Felt (10-7) made some clutch pitches, inducing Breanna Ethridge and Amber Miller into pop ups to get out of the inning with the game still scoreless.

Mill Creek then took advantage of its first scoring opportunity in the bottom of the inning, though it did so in an usual fashion.

Lauren Bennett was thrown out at first by Miller after a line drive to right, but it was enough to bring home Taylor Rogers, who reached on an error earlier in the inning, to put the Hawks up 1-0.

"That was huge," Parham said of the first inning. "Getting through that first inning without (Grayson) getting any runs on the board was big. And then we got one. It just made everybody relaxed."

The Hawks had every reason to be relaxed after the third and fourth innings, thanks to some clutch, two-out hitting from the top of the order.

With McKenzie Fagioli, who doubled, still on second with two out, Bell strode to the plate and found a 2-0 offering from Jen Spangler to her liking and drove it over the wall in center field for a two-run homer that extended the lead to 3-0.

"I knew they were going to try to pitch me off-speed at first," Bell said. "I just had to wait on my pitch. I was just trying to score (Fagioli) and hit a line drive, and it worked out good."

The Hawks added an insurance run on a wild pitch later in the inning, but really put the game away against reliever Peyton Glover in the bottom of the fourth, once again with two outs.

This time, Rogers got things started by lining a triple to the wall in right-center before Fagioli, who finished the day 2-for-4, drove her in with a single to make the Mill Creek lead 4-0. Bennett then gave Bell another chance at an RBI by legging out a bunt single, and the junior third baseman delivered with a run-scoring single to extend the lead to 6-0.

Felt made that lead stand up, retiring 10 of 12 Grayson hitters at one point before running into some trouble in the sixth, when Snyder and Ethridge led off the inning with back-to-back singles.

But the junior right hander retired the next three Rams in order, and then pitched around an error and walk to Denton in the seventh to close out a four-hit, complete-game shutout that included a strikeout.

"I'd be remiss if I didn't say something about Heather Felt," Parham said. "To shut an offensive team like that down is pretty impressive. She threw 31 pitches in that first inning, but finished with only 82. It was a great effort."

Grayson coach Jennifer Edwards was equally proud of her team's effort despite having to fight from behind all day.

The loss ended a season that included 16 wins in the Rams' last 21 games, including a sweep of state-ranked Cherokee in the first round and taking Mill Creek to a deciding game.

"It was a tough game for us (Thursday) night," an emotional Edwards said. "The girls came out and played hard. We had some ... hits, but we just couldn't get them tied together at the right time. ... Mill Creek came ready to play."

"We have a really good group that's worked hard for this. We've got three seniors who put a lot into it the last three years, and ... we've got a great younger class that's got out here and worked hard."