Untimely errors and walks had plagued Bethlehem Christian Academy at times during an up-and-down season, and they came at the most inopportune time Monday, Oct. 21, in the GISA Class AAA quarterfinals against visiting Tiftarea Academy.
After an error and a walk loaded the bases, McKenna McCard launched a sixth-inning grand slam to life that lifted the Panthers to a 6-4 win in game 1, and Tiftarea cruised past the Knights 8-0 in five innings in game 2 to complete the sweep.
The Panthers (11-9) advanced to the semifinals and were scheduled to travel to either Bulloch Academy or John Milledge Academy on Wednesday, Oct. 23. BCA finished the season 7-8.
The Knights, the No. 1 seed out of Region 1, had just grabbed a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning of game 1 when courtesy runner Grace Fort stole second base with two outs and then stole third and scored on an error by the Tiftarea third baseman.
The Panthers’ rally started with one out in the sixth on a single by Madi Hartsfield. Morgan McCay then reached on an error, and Elli Bryan drew a walk, setting the stage for McCard’s heroics on a 3-2 pitch.
“We just had no place to put her. If we don’t make the error, maybe we’re able to pitch around her and get out of the inning,” Knights coach Michael Clarke said of McCard’s homer off BCA starting pitcher Clancy Bourbeau. “We’ve been preaching all year to just make the simple plays, we couldn’t make the simple plays there and it came back to bite us.”
The Knights cut the deficit to 6-4 in the bottom of the sixth when Taylor Buckner reached on a two-base error, moved to third on a Hannah Still single and scored on a safety squeeze by Jadyn Goddard.
But McCard, who went the distance in the circle, got Bourbeau to ground out and then pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning with a pair of strikeouts to nail down the victory. McCard allowed just one earned run on three hits while striking out 13.
Tiftarea got a one-out double in the top of the first by Bryan and then used three walks to grab an early lead. BCA tied the game in the second when Goddard reached on a three-base error and came in to score on a wild pitch. The teams exchanged runs in the fourth with Bryan hitting an RBI single and Bourbeau’s RBI double scoring Buckner in the bottom of the frame.
Tiftarea jumped all over BCA right off the bat in game 2 with Sara Kate Lupo hitting a grand slam of her own in the bottom of the first inning. That blast was set up by a hit batsman, single and intentional walk to McCard.
The Panthers took advantage of four BCA errors in the second to score three more runs and break it open and added one more run in the third on a leadoff home run by McCard’s sister, Pyper McCard.
McKenna McCard pitched the first two innings of game 2, and Lupo went the final three innings to close BCA out. Singles by Buckner and Goddard provided the only base runners for BCA in the game.
“They’re a really good team and just hit the ball well,” Clarke said. “Our girls played well for the most part and had a good year. I’m proud of them for winning a region championship. I’m ready to give them some time off and then we’ll get back and get going on next year.”
After going 17-0 and winning the GICAA state championship this spring, BCA joined the rest of the school’s athletic teams in competing in the GISA and had a near-immediate turnaround to summer preparations for the fall campaign.
While his team’s first year back in the GISA had its ups and downs, Clarke feels optimistic about the program’s future. The Knights will only lose one senior — Buckner — and will return all the rest of their key pieces next fall.
“It’s a really good base to build off of, and we’re going to continue to work hard to get better,” Clarke said. “I would just tell them to remember this feeling and think about making the plays you’re supposed to make and not beating ourselves.
“If we make a couple plays here and there (Monday), there’s no telling how these games might have turned out.”