Michaela Manley was having too much fun for the Bluffton softball team's playoff ride to end.
Thanks to the freshman catcher's timely hitting and hustle, it doesn't have to.
The Bobcats scraped and clawed their way to a 4-3, come-from-behind victory at home over No. 3 seed Carolina Forest, clinching the Class 4-A District 8 championship and moving that much closer to competing for a state title. The top-seeded Bobcats took their first lead of the game on the final play, when Manley scampered across the plate after a fielder's choice grounder by Morganne Parker. A cathartic celebration ensued, one that was surely tinged with relief.
"It was awesome because I had two strikes on me," Manley said. "I was like, 'Oh God, I do not want to strike out.'"
With the game tied at 3 in the bottom of the seventh, Manley singled sharply to left and alertly steamed into second on an error, just ahead of the throw. Taylor Gleason's single moved Manley to third before Parker's game-winning grounder.
"You see the pitch and you take it anywhere," Manley said of her at-bat. "I'm not one for grand slams or anything like that."
A mere single was enough to cap a rally that saw Bluffton overcome an early three-run deficit. Carolina Forest needed to win twice to take the district title, and looked to be well on the way to doing at least half of that. Bobcats senior pitcher Courtney Smith struggled to find her command and the Panthers pounced, piling up three runs through four. It could have been worse, but with runners on second and third and nobody out in the third, Smith struck out the next three hitters. That turned things around, said head coach Bill Ball.
"Courtney started the game and didn't have some usual rhythm," Ball said. "She started getting in a rhythm. Once that happened, I knew that there probably wouldn't be too much more scoring on their end."
Before the playoffs, Ball said he expected his team's offense to carry them through some games. It took a few innings, a handful of walks and some Panther mistakes, but eventually the bats found their mark. The Bobcats got a run back in the third and a pair more in the fourth, tying the game on a passed ball. The table was set for Manley's game-ending dash to the dish.
"They did what they had to do," Ball said. "It wasn't pretty all the time."
Even when it seemed like the Bobcats were headed for a winner-take-all second game, Manley said her teammates kept believing they could come back.
"A couple of us tried to get everyone up," Manley said. "We like everyone to cheer for other people."
They'll have at least two more opportunities to do just that.
The Bobcats will play at home on Saturday against the Division 7 winner Stratford.
Bluffton 4, Carolina Forest 3
Carolina Forest 110 100 0 -- 3 3 1
Bluffton 000 120 1 -- 4 4 2
WP: Courtney Smith 7 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 9 K
LP: Emily Merriam 7 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 K
Top hitters: Bluffton -- Jordyn Parker: 1-2, 1B, BB; Michaela Manley: 1-3, 1B, R