North Carolina softball Coach Donna Papa knew exactly how the final half-inning would unfold. Before the Tar Heels’ last at-bat of Wednesday’s home opener against Western Carolina, Papa huddled the team in the dugout.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Papa told her players with surprising conviction, given the scoreless tie and UNC’s offensive struggles until then. “Kiwi’s gonna get on, Amber’s gonna move her and then Kristen or Jenna is gonna score her.”
And then it happened, almost precisely as Papa had just explained. Aquilla Mateen — Kiwi, to her teammates and coach — got on, with a leadoff double. Amber Parrish laid down a bunt to advance Mateen to third base. Then Kristen Brown waved Mateen home on a wild pitch in the dirt. And just like that, the Tar Heels walked off with a 1-0 win against the Catamounts.
“Sometimes it just works out that way,” Papa said, smiling, after the game.
And sometimes not. Papa knows, because it didn’t work out so easily for the Tar Heels during the first six innings. Despite putting runners in scoring position on numerous occasions, UNC struggled all game to push runs across the plate.
A double play in the first inning erased the Tar Heels’ chance to grab an early lead. On every ensuing scoring opportunity, something seemed to go wrong: a looking bases-loaded strikeout in the third inning, a rally-ending lineout to the pitcher in the fourth inning, and a runner gunned down at the plate in the fifth inning.
“We need to do a be a lot better at situational execution,” Papa said. “We need to be smarter in certain situations and take more control. We did really well with that in Arizona; today, we weren’t very good in the early innings.”
But after Papa’s dugout pep talk in the seventh inning, Mateen was both smart and in control in her crucial leadoff at-bat.
A frequent bunter, Mateen recognized that the Western Carolina defense had creeped in to defend the bunt. So she swung away, belting the second pitch into left-centerfield for a stand-up double.
“I usually don’t hit, so that was pretty awesome for me,” Mateen said. “And then Amber moved me over (on a sacrifice bunt), and I scored on an easy wild pitch.”
Mateen’s decision to swing in her last plate appearance was made even better by the fact that Papa had just overheard someone in the Western Carolina dugoff remark that all Mateen did was bunt.
After six innings of sloppy offensive execution, one flawless inning was all it took to push the Tar Heels over the edge.
“In the later innings, especially in the seventh when it counted, we got it done,” Papa said.
And that’s all that matters.
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