SUWANEE — North Gwinnett jumped on top with three runs in the first inning and then rode the strong starting pitching of Kinsley Jennings as the Bulldogs knocked off Grayson 5-0 in the deciding game of their Class AAAAAA state softball best-of-3 second-round series.
With the victory, North (27-5) moves on to the final round of eight in Columbus to take on the Lowdnes-Hillgrove winner next Thursday.
“Everybody thought we were rebuilding this year, but here we are,” said North head coach Randy Black. “We’ve had some really good teams in the past, but it’s the first time in eight years since we’ve been back (to Columbus). Just a great effort tonight by everybody on this team.”
The two teams had split Wednesday’s doubleheader to set up Thursday’s winner-take-all Game 3 and it was North that captured the momentum right off the bat.
After Grayson went in order in the top of the first, North got an RBI single from Draven Sonnon to score Makenna Dowell and then Hannah Harrison delivered a clutch two-out single to plate Chase Battle and Sonnon to make it 3-0.
North threatened again in the second as the Bulldogs loaded the bases, but came up empty to keep it 3-0.
“I was happy with the way we came out and got those three runs in the first,” said Black. “That was big. But then we left the bases loaded in the second and I thought, oh no, here we go again.”
That seemed to spark Grayson as the Rams loaded the bases in the third on two hits and an error.
But Battle made a great defensive play by tracking down Stephanie Snyder’s long drive into the right-center field alley to save at least two runs and preserve North’s three-run lead.
“If Chase doesn’t make that catch, (Grayson) gets at least two (runs) and maybe ties it,” said Black. “That was huge.”
Grayson (21-15) came alive again in the sixth when the Rams loaded the bases on three singles.
But Jennings rose to the occasion with the big pitch when it mattered most and got the inning-ending groundout to snuff out Grayson’s rally.
In the bottom of the sixth, North pushed the advantage out to 5-0 on Kaitlan Andrews’ RBI single which chased home Lindsey Cobb and Dowell’s RBI single which scored Emily Dennis.
Jennings set down Grayson in order in the seventh, which included more solid defense from North as Sonnon made a diving catch in right center for the second out of the inning.
For the night, Jennings (13-2) allowed five hits, struck out two and walked none while working out of serious trouble in the third and sixth innings for the complete-game victory.
“Kinsley was money tonight,” said Black. “She was a little tired in the middle of the season, but she’s ready now.”
Andrews, who had homered on Wednesday, went 2-for-3 as seven North batters collected 10 total hits against Grayson starting pitcher Bre Ethridge (12-4).
Dowell and Harrison also had two hits for North.
Carley Batchelor led the Grayson attack with two hits while Stephanie Snyder, Peyton Glover and Caroline Sandhagen each had a hit.
“I’m really proud of this team and we hate to end it this way,” said Grayson head coach Jennifer Edwards. “But this team did a lot of great things. We hit the ball hard today and (North) just made some excellent plays. We hate to lose our seniors, but we only have three and we have a great group coming back next year. So we can’t wait to get started again.”