MEBANE — Kenna Raye Dark delivered back-to-back strikeouts to clinch victory for the Eastern Alamance softball team in the state playoffs Friday night, denying Roxboro Person amid a tight finish that had Dark’s fiery reactions and the home crowd’s relieved eruptions cutting through the heavy tension in the air.
The potential tying and go-ahead runs were in scoring position for the visiting Rockets, as Dark reached back and met the moment: right on cue for the standout senior, on the eve of her 18th birthday.
“One thing about me, even though we were in that situation, I’m going to always handle myself,” she said, “because I’m good under pressure. Pressure is a privilege.”
Dark pitched a complete game with 13 strikeouts and Makiya Graves and Taylor Byrd belted a crucial pair of two-run homers, pushing the host Eagles past Roxboro Person 4-3 in the regional semifinal round of the NCHSAA Class 3-A state tournament.
Top-seeded Eastern Alamance (24-1) will meet third-seeded Cape Fear (24-4) in the East Regional final, a best-of-3 series that begins Tuesday night. On the other side of the bracket, third-seeded Central Davidson plays fourth-seeded North Buncombe in the West Regional final series.
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Eastern Alamance defeated Central Carolina Conference rival Roxboro Person (19-5) on Friday night for the fourth time this season. Dark, the UNC signee, helped power the Eagles to the Class 3-A state title as a freshman in 2019. She said to consider the Eagles “destined to go to the state championship” again this season.
“This is our time, for real,” she said.
Eastern Alamance trailed 2-0, the first deficit the team has faced during these state playoffs, after Emma Bowes and Kelsey Mangum supplied run-scoring singles in the second inning for the Rockets, who had nine hits on the night.
Byrd blasted her home run inside the foul pole in left field, after Kenzie Taylor reached on a dropped third strike to open the bottom of the fourth inning. Eastern Alamance coach Danny Way said he initially thought about having Byrd bunt in an effort to advance Taylor, but he said a moment of divine intervention superseded that notion.
Four batters later, Graves cranked her ninth home run of the season, and Eastern Alamance led 4-2 in the bottom of the fourth. Graves said she had taken a couple promising offerings from Roxboro Person pitcher Lillie Davis early in the count during her previous at-bats.
“I told myself I was swinging on the first pitch no matter what,” she said. “I wasn’t waiting for it.”
Karter Hawkins lifted a solo homer in the top of the sixth inning, pulling the Rockets within 4-3.
In the top of the seventh, Davis reached on a single for Roxboro Person and Delaney Glover walked. The runners moved up on a wild pitch by Dark, who responded with strikeouts of Taryn Massey and Mariah McCowan to close the game. Dark said she tried to become a calming presence as the Eagles infielders huddled near the mound after each out while the Rockets threatened.
“She’s very confident and very strong in what she does,” Graves said of Dark. “If we’re in the toughest situation, she’s the pitcher I want on the mound, because I trust her so much.”
Adam Smith is a sports reporter for the Burlington Times-News and USA TODAY Network. You can reach him by email at email@example.com or @adam_smithTN on Twitter.
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This article originally appeared on Times-News: Eastern Alamance softball: Kenna Raye Dark denies Person in NCHSAA playoffs