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Grueling early slate for UNC softball continues with loss to No. 21 James Madison

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UNC first-year pitcher Alyssa Stanley (7) pitches the ball during the game against James Madison at G. Anderson Softball Stadium on Wednesday Feb. 19, 2020. UNC lost to Madison 3-6.

Playing 12 games in 13 days is a difficult proposition for any collegiate softball team. When six of those matchups come against top-25 opponents, these early season challenges can turn into a gauntlet. 

Wednesday night was no exception for North Carolina.

Just a few days after hosting Wisconsin and No. 11 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the North Carolina softball team faced No. 21 James Madison and fell, 6-3. 

The Tar Heels turned to first-year pitcher Alyssa Stanley to shut down a JMU offense that boasted three players hovering around the .600 mark heading into Wednesday.

The Dukes’ bats were as potent as advertised, hitting three straight singles to open the game and causing the Tar Heels to fall behind, 2-0, after the top of the first. Once Stanley worked her way out of trouble during the next two innings, JMU added two more runs in the top of the fourth to build a 4-0 lead.

After recording 17 hits in the four-game ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the North Carolina offense was stymied early on in this contest. Through four innings, the team had yet to record a hit, and it appeared as though JMU would cruise to an easy victory.

However, junior Megan Dray broke the spell in the bottom of the fifth with a line-drive single. Dray's pinch runner was batted in when Stanley ripped a single to right-center field. 

“Meg passed me that bat and I just wanted to do something with it,” Stanley said. “She got on base, so I needed to do something for her.”

With no outs and promise on the horizon, though, the Tar Heels were caught stealing twice, virtually ending any kind of momentum that was beginning to develop. 

Two JMU runs were scored off a two-out double to right field in the seventh inning, stretching the lead to 6-1. Despite a two-run homer by junior Kristina Burkhardt in the bottom of the inning, the Tar Heels' late rally came up short in a 6-3 defeat. 

“The hitters made some adjustments, but we really made them too late,” head coach Donna Papa said. “It didn’t really leave us with many innings to work with.”

Although Stanley faced one of the tougher lineups in the nation, she put together quality pitches at critical times to contribute to 11 runners left on base, giving the Tar Heels a chance to win the game. With the pitching staff shorthanded from the previous weekend's overload of games, she threw 137 pitches, allowing the other starters to receive some much-needed rest.

“I thought she gave us a quality start against a very good team,” Papa said.  “They hit the ball well, but to come out with four runs, and then she gave up a couple in the seventh, I think she did a good job.”

As ACC play approaches, Papa has a few objectives she needs her team to pursue for the Tar Heels to return to their winning ways following a grueling start to the season. 

“I think we need to have an attacking mentality,” Papa said. “Attacking early in at-bats because that’s when pitchers will give you their best stuff, attacking the ball defensively and, lastly, our pitchers need to attack the batters."

Despite the challenges this team has faced, the morale and positivity continue to grow. For a group with lofty expectations, Burkhardt, one of the team’s leaders, understands strong relationships can make all the difference. 

“We know we’re a good team, we just need to rely on each other and spark some energy,” Burkhardt said. “This team is awesome, we feed off each other so well, we’re all so positive, we just need to keep that and not get too in our heads.”

@nelsonhunter_

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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