With their season on the line, the No. 2-ranked North Lamar Pantherettes were at a crossroads. Needing to win two games on their home field to advance to the regional finals, the Pantherettes knew they were in for a battle against a tough Melissa Cardinal softball team.

Things looked dismal for North Lamar as the team faced a 4-1 deficit late in Game 2, but the Pantherettes dug deep and willed their way past Melissa in that game, and followed with a dominant closeout showing in Game 3 to secure a trip to the regional finals. After falling 4-3 on a walk-off hit in Game 1 at Melissa, North Lamar rallied to win both Games 2 and 3 on its home field by final scores of 5-4 in 9 innings and 7-1.

“I asked them after Thursday night’s loss how bad they wanted this — how bad did they want to beat this team twice,” Pantherettes head softball coach Ashley Endsley said. “They did want it. They (Melissa) scored, we scored, they scored three, we came back — that’s something we can’t coach. That’s heart, that’s want, that’s everything, which is given to them. If they have that, nothing is getting in their way.”

Game 2 started out as a pitchers duel and ended as an instant classic. After Melissa got on the board at 1-0 first with a sacrifice fly in the top of the first, the offense came to a halt. Both teams exchanged stellar defensive plays, but couldn’t break through offensively as both Karsyn Iltis of North Lamar and Alexis Pevehouse of Melissa were dominant in the circle.

 However, North Lamar got the spark it needed in the bottom of the sixth after a strong challenge from Coach Endsley. Junior shortstop Ashlyn Reavis answered the call in a big way as she smacked a leadoff triple to right field, which ignited the team and crowd’s energy and proved to be a huge turning point in this series.

“I was hitting for my team,” Reavis said. “We are gritty, we are coming and we are going to the next round. We are going to move forward with focus, but I was there and ready for my team. I just wanted to help them get the runs we needed to score.”

In the next at bat, Iltis drove Reavis across home plate with an RBI single that just missed the outstretched glove of Melissa’s second baseman. Iltis eventually ended up on third base with one out, but was stranded after Pevehouse retired the next two batters.

The score was deadlocked at 1-1 until Melissa got a 2-out rally going in the top of the eighth. Pevehouse doubled and was plated by junior Savannah Rodriguez’s RBI double. Then, senior cleanup hitter Audrey Solomon homered over the left center wall on a full count to make it a 4-1 lead for the Lady Cardinals. The energy levels seemed to deflate, but the Pantherettes weren’t about to give up.

Sophomore Macy Richardson led the bottom of the eighth off with a single and Reavis followed by reaching on an error. After that, Iltis tripled on a fly ball to right field, which scored both runners. However, Iltis was tagged out at home plate trying to advance on the play. With the bases empty, sophomore third baseman McKenzie Dickson tripled to right and was plated on an RBI double from senior McKayla Figueroa. The scoring stopped there, but North Lamar successfully tied the game at 4-4 to keep its season alive.

After Iltis shut down the 6-7-8 part of Melissa’s order in succession, North Lamar wasted no time getting the bats going. Senior right fielder Keegan Fendley led the bottom of the ninth off with a double, and Richardson sacrificed her to third. Then, Reavis and Iltis were walked to load the bases. Dickson was at the plate with a chance to win it, but the first pitch she saw went past the Melissa catcher and allowed Fendley to score the game-winning, walk-off run as North Lamar took the game 5-4.

The Pantherettes were the visitors in the decisive Game 3, and used the momentum built in Game 2 to their advantage. The teams were neck-and-neck until North Lamar broke through in the top of the fifth inning. Melissa’s freshman pitcher Bryton Wright, who kept the Pantherettes’ bats in check through four innings, couldn’t silence North Lamar’s offense any longer. Freshman designated hitter Emma Layton started the Pantherettes’ rally with a leadoff double. Then, sophomore left fielder Noel Rainey reached on an error.

The next four North Lamar batters — Fendley, Richardson, Reavis and Iltis — each singled and North Lamar held a 5-1 lead. Dickson drew a walk to load the bases and Figueroa delivered an RBI single to increase the lead to 6-1. Layton came back to bat again and singled to plate Iltis and give North Lamar a 7-1 lead, which held up as the final due to the team’s excellent play defensively and pitching down the stretch.

“It was bound to happen I kept thinking, but it starts with one hit and hitting is contagious,” Endsley said. “Once one gets it going, everyone else is following suit, which is what it’s been all year. We came out and I told them in the locker room between games to come out and hit them early. We scored early and it kept on in the fifth inning.”

The Pantherettes’ bats coming to life was one half of the winning equation, and the other half came defensively, starting with Iltis. The sophomore, who typically did her damage at the plate, stepped up in a big way in this regional semifinal series as she threw all 23 innings she and her team played in. Having a workhorse like Iltis on the team proved to be a huge difference.

“Karsyn has done that all year for us at the plate, and has been one of our most consistent hitters,” Endsley said. “Now, it’s just translating the same way on the mound. Right now with an injury, she’s had to step up and has worked hard. She’s stepped up to the challenge, and her teammates have stepped up behind her, too. All good pitchers have a short term memory. A girl hit a home run off her in a previous at bat, but she didn’t remember that rather just attacked her at the plate. She has done a great job for us.”

Keeping the two seniors’ seasons going along with confidence in her defense were two sources of fuel that kept Iltis’ engine running.

“We didn’t want our two seniors to lose on our home field, so I was just trying to pitch my heart out for them and my team,” Iltis said. “I knew they could get the outs and work behind me. I just kept throwing my game and trusted the defense to get the outs.”

In Games 2 and 3 combined, Iltis led the charge. She finished 4-for-8 from the plate with 3 RBI and 1 run scored. She pitched all 16 innings, gave up 15 hits, 5 earned runs and struck out 7 batters.

Reavis was a catalyst on both offense and defense, making several excellent hustle plays and doing damage at the plate. She went 3-for-8 with 3 RBI and 3 runs scored, while Layton recorded 3 hits and 1 RBI. Fendley and Richardson both went 3-for-8 from the plate with 1 RBI and 2 runs scored apiece, while Figueroa tallied 4 key hits and 2 RBI. Rainey added 2 hits and 2 runs, while Dickson contributed with a triple and a run. North Lamar freshman Claire Stewart was also a key cog for the Pantherettes defensively playing consistently at first base throughout the series.

The fight and will Endsley saw from her team is something she takes pride in.

“I’m extremely proud of them, and what they did is nothing new,” Endsley said. “Every time I have challenged them, they have done it and exceeded expectations. If we keep doing that, no one is going to be in our way.”

The Pantherettes move on to face the Anna Lady Coyotes in the regional finals with series details to be announced and a spot in the state tournament on the line.

Game 2

       I1 I2 I3 I4 I5 I6 I7 I8 I9 F

Melissa: 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 0 4

N. Lamar: 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 3 1 5

Melissa statistics not available

North Lamar batting: 12 hits; K. Fendley, 2-for-4; M. Figueroa, 2-for-4; K. Iltis, 2-for-4; A. Reavis, 2-for-4; M. Dickson, 1-for-3; E. Layton, 1-for-4; N. Rainey, 1-for-4; M. Richardson, 1-for-4

North Lamar XBH: 5 XBH; M. Dickson, 1; 3B; K. Fendley, 1; 2B; M. Figueroa, 1, 2B; K. Iltis, 1, 3B; A. Reavis, 1, 3B

North Lamar RBI: 4 RBI; K. Iltis, 3; M. Figueroa, 1

North Lamar pitching: K. Iltis; 9 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 5 K, 0 BB

Game 3

      I1 I2 I3 I4 I5 I6 I7 F

N. Lamar: 0 0 1 0 6 0 0 7

Melissa: 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1

Melissa statistics not available

North Lamar batting: 13 hits; M. Figueroa, 3-for-4; K. Iltis, 2-for-4; E. Layton, 2-for-3; M. Richardson, 2-for-4; K. Fendley, 1-for-4; S. Hill, 1-for-4; N. Rainey, 1-for-4; A. Reavis, 1-for-4

North Lamar XBH: 1 XBH; E. Layton,1, 2B

North Lamar RBI: 7 RBI; A. Reavis, 3; K. Fendley, 1; M. Figueroa, 1; N. Rainey, 1; M. Richardson, 1

North Lamar pitching: K. Iltis; 7 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 K, 2 BB

Geoff Heppes is sports editor for The Paris News. He can be reached at 903-785-6967 or at geoff.heppes@theparisnews.com.

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