History-making Hickory Ridge softball is heading to the NCHSAA state championship

Marvin Ridge threatened up to the final pitch of its season Thursday night, but a fan only needed to see the first inning to understand how Hickory Ridge beat the Mavericks 1-0 and gained its first-ever 4A softball state championship berth.

The visiting Ragin’ Bulls (26-2) completed a two-game sweep of Marvin Ridge (22-5) and advanced to next weekend’s best-of-3 state finals against the winner of Friday’s East Regional finale, between Apex and Topsail. Hickory Ridge will try to become the first Cabarrus County 4A champions since Central Cabarrus repeated in 2004 and ‘05.

Marvin Ridge, finishing second in the West Regional for the second straight year, had runners in scoring position three times Thursday night.

But the first inning decided much of the outcome.

The game began with Grace Bechtol lofting a home run over the left field fence, for what turned out to be the game’s only run.

“Normally, we’re a team that has to work to create runs,” Bulls’ head coach Justin Davies said. “Power hitting is not what we usually do.”

An early threat

Then in the bottom of the first, Marvin Ridge’s offense, which specializes in power hitting and averaged more than two home runs a game this season, came alive briefly. The Mavericks had been held to a single run by Hickory Ridge pitcher Anna Dew in the series opener, but they started quickly in the first.

Leadoff batter Ella Tracy walked, and Riva Patel looped a double to left field. With nobody out, the Mavericks had two runners in scoring position and the heart of their lineup coming up.

“I know a lot of their players, and I know how well they can hit for power,” Dew said.

But she proceeded to strike out Anna McGowan (14 home runs this season) with a wicked change-up, then fan cleanup hitter Lexi Kirby (11 homers) with another change-up.

When Addison Studney flew out, the threat was over.

“Everyone in the stadium knew what she was going to throw for those third strikes,” Hickory Ridge pitching coach Kevin LaRousa. “And she still struck them out. She has the best change-up in the state.”

“The change-up is my best pitch,” Dew noted.

In the bottom of the third, Marvin Ridge got runners on first and second with nobody out. Dew struck out Patel and McGowan and got Kirby to hit into a fielders choice.

A final threat

The Mavericks had one more threat, in the bottom of the seventh.

Ashlyn Roberts walked, then went to second on a wild pitch with nobody out.

That brought Davies to the mound.

“I told her to remember how she got to this point and who she is,” he said.

Dew retired the next three hitters, completed a two-hitter with 10 strikeouts, and the Bulls were celebrating their trip to the state championship series.

Losing pitcher Anna Phifer scattered four hits and avoided problems, outside of the first-inning home run.

Davies said the outcome surprised him. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “I didn’t think one run would be enough tonight.”

Davies is in his fifth season as head coach and said this version of the Ragin’ Bulls had some bumps along the road, despite their 26-2 record.

“We had a close victory early in the season against Hough and another close one against Piedmont,” he said.

Hickory Ridge lost to West Stanly, the defending 2A champion and this year’s West Regional champ, in March. And there was a 4-3 loss to Mooresville in the Greater Metro 4 4A Conference tournament finals.

“We don’t have the big hitters,” he said. “We try to keep the ball in play. We know that with Anna, we can get a run or two and make that work.”

Dew has been playing softball since age 9 and has been a member of several traveling teams. She said this year’s Hickory Ridge squad is something different.

“I’ve never experienced a team like this,” she said. “Tonight, at one of the crucial parts of the game, I turned around and saw some of my teammates giggling. They were cutting up. That helped me stay loose. That’s the kind of team we have. It’s a lot of fun to have them as teammates.”

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle