Whitney Hulsey had to enjoy a socially-distanced home run celebration at home plate. That did nothing to take away the moment, though.
The Jackson County junior swatted a walk-off homer in the bottom of the seventh inning Tuesday (Aug. 11) to lift the Panthers to a 5-4 home win over rival East Jackson.
“Oh my gosh, that has never happened to me before,” Hulsey said of the walk-off.
The Panthers had just lost a 4-3 lead in the top of the seventh inning when Hulsey led off the bottom half of the inning and blasted a 1-0 offering over the wall in left field to improve Jackson County to 2-0.
“Whitney just stepped up and hit a bomb,” Jackson County coach Kristin Croteau said.
Hulsey, who had gone hitless with one walk in her first three plate appearances on the night, discussed her strategy on her final at bat.
““I knew I was due," she said. "In this game, specifically, I struggled a lot with going to the inside pitch, pulling that ball. I knew that Haley (Harpis) got a lot of inside pitches, and she’s a big hitter as well, so I took what the pitcher gave her and just put it in my at bat and just went with it.”
This was yet again another close, back-and-forth game typical of these rival schools within the Jackson County School System. The Panthers won on a walk-off hit at home against the Eagles last year.
“They’re a great team, and this is a rival,” Croteau said. “Every time we play, it’s always a great game no matter what, and our girls never quit.”
East Jackson led 2-0 out of the gate when Isabel Harrison and Madison Bruce each scored on first-inning errors. But the Panthers answered with an RBI double from Haley Harpis in the bottom half of the first inning and a run-scoring hit from Madison Miller in the second inning to tie the game.
East Jackson jumped ahead again in the third inning with an RBI double from Hannah Williamson, but the Panthers pushed across two runs in the fourth inning. Kylen Hewell provided the go-ahead run by lining an RBI single to centerfield, putting the Panthers up 4-3.
The score stayed that way until the top of the seventh when East Jackson’s Amy Nixon singled to start the inning, escaped a rundown to reach second base and later came home on consecutive passed balls to tie the game.
Hulsey didn’t draw out the drama in the bottom of the seventh, though, homering on the second pitch she saw to end the game. Due to social-distancing rules, Hulsey’s team couldn’t mob her at home plate to celebrate the moment.
“It was so weird not being surrounded by teammates when I stepped on home plate, but I knew they were always going to be there for me whenever I came back to the dugout — they made up for that,” Hulsey said.
Croteau praised her junior second baseman.
“She is a leader,” she said of Hulsey. “She leads by example, her work ethic, on the field, off the field, and she will do her part in order to help the team win.”
Jackson County finished with seven hits on the night. Harpis — now 4-for-7 on the year with five RBIs — went 2-for-3 with two doubles to lead the Panthers. In the circle, freshman Maegan Brownlee (2-0) picked up another complete-game win, allowing four runs (two earned) on three hits with four walks and two strikeouts.
She was able out-duel the Eagles’ Harrison, who threw six innings, allowing seven hits and five runs (three earned). She struck out seven batters and walked three.
East Jackson coach Will Bartlett took the loss in stride.
“It was a good game, back-and-forth,” Bartlett said, “a lot lead changes, so it was fun, it really was. We didn’t make defensive mistakes, so that was good. We had some good timely hitting in the last inning … I don’t really take this as a bad loss, just more of a learning experience than anything else.”
His Eagles (0-2) are in the midst of a stretch of three games in three days. The Panthers were the first of that trio of opponents. East Jackson will move on to games against Winder-Barrow (Aug. 12) and Commerce (Aug. 13).
“This game here is over,” Barlett said. “So, we’re learning from this, and we’ll move on and we’ll get ready for Winder … One game at a time.”
Meanwhile, Jackson County travels to Duluth Aug. 13 as the Panthers attempt to start 3-0.
“We have a lot of confidence in our young team,” said Hulsey, one of the few upperclassmen on the squad. “… We have to change the confidence and bring intensity with it to each and every game and practice.”