With ACC play set to begin, UNC welcomed the Panthers to Chapel Hill on Friday for the beginning of a three-game weekend slate, looking to turn the season around.
It didn't happen immediately. In game one of the series, UNC was able to resurrect its dormant offense to the tune of nine hits, but left seven runners on base, leading to a 7-3 defeat.
Hoping to extinguish the losing skid in game two on Saturday, Papa turned to sophomore pitcher Hannah George to stifle Pittsburgh's bats. George responded by turning in a complete seven innings with only two unearned runs allowed on four hits.
“I thought she pitched one of her best games,” Papa said.
Despite George’s dominant outing, the game was still hanging in the balance heading into the bottom of the sixth inning. A two-run charge by Pittsburgh in the top half of the inning evened the score at two runs apiece.
However, the Tar Heels immediately responded with a flurry of singles and walks that were driven home on a triple from first-year third baseman Destiny Middleton. A brief seventh inning allowed the Tar Heels to end their losing streak with a 7-2 victory.
“I was trying to see the ball deep and rely on my hands to go through the zone,” Middleton said. “It also took believing in myself and knowing that I could do it.”
While the Tar Heels benefitted from the additional February afternoon, Pittsburgh’s fortunes were hardly similar when tasked with facing George again on Sunday.
Less than one day after stymying the Pittsburgh offense, George returned to the circle on Sunday for the series finale to bolster a shorthanded pitching staff. After allowing three quick hits and a run to open up the afternoon, George settled in and didn't allow another run en route to a victory.
“I take it as a grateful opportunity that they want me to have the ball,” George said. “I just love having the opportunity of playing the game I love and doing it with the people that I love.”
After trailing early in the contest 1-0, the Tar Heels' offense kicked into high gear and never looked back. The team plated a baserunner in every frame, leading to a 9-1 victory in six innings.
“I think the girls went up to the plate with a lot of confidence,” Papa said. “We just wanted them to go up there and attack good pitches, and not swing where they want you to swing.”
For a young team that has dealt with daunting early matchups and heartbreaking losses, this weekend's results figure to be a step in the right direction for UNC. Following the wins, George and the team will head into the upcoming week with renewed confidence.
“We know we have all the pieces of a good team, and putting it all together felt so nice,” Papa said. “It was tough to go through the losses, but I think it will help us appreciate winning more and doing the things necessary it takes to win. Because nothing is guaranteed when you head onto the field.”
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