Harnett Central earned more hardware this week, outlasting a county foe in the All American Conference Softball Tournament final.
ANGIER — Ashley Gaines didn't let her Harnett Central softball team settle.
Having solidified the All American Conference's top automatic bid for the upcoming state playoffs by splitting with Triton last week, Thursday was a chance to claim outright league supremacy against a battle-tested Western Harnett squad.
"We told them, 'Don't let the fact that we shared (the AAC regular-season title) with Triton, and drew No. 1, be a luck factor," Gaines said following a 7-6 walk-off win at home.
"... let's take care of business tonight and then we can worry about what's to come after."
The pregame message proved effective, despite Central (19-5) watching a three-run lead evaporate in the seventh inning.
Lady Trojans sophomore Ella Mangum provided the clutch hit with the score knotted at 6, a two-out single that allowed Lauren Faulkner to race home for the championship-clinching run.
"She's probably the best person you could put in the box in that situation," Gaines said of her young outfielder.
"And she's thinking, I'm gonna continue to do my job. I'm making contact and we're gonna see what happens."
Meanwhile, No. 3 seed Western (13-7) continued its fiery play of late.
Lady Eagles coach Stephen Hales thought his group showed the same fight from two days earlier, taking down second-seeded Triton in the semifinal round.
"That win was a program-builder and a momentum-builder for this game," Hales said of beating the Lady Hawks for the first time since 2016.
"We've played the best two games of the season ... in my opinion. I'm proud of the girls. They played their hearts out."
Western ace Katie Neel survived 6 2/3 innings of rugged pitching, giving up 11 hits but just two earned runs and no walks.
Neel held the Lady Trojans to just two runs through the first three innings, both coming from the bat of Ashley Blevin who had RBIs in both the first and third.
Blevin's RBI single in the third cut the deficit to 3-2 after the Lady Eagles jumped out to a two-run lead in the top half.
A pivotal stretch came during the next frame when Central took its first lead, 5-3, on a two-run hit from Savannah Bain.
Matching Neel's grittiness for the Lady Trojans was Kacey Fulcher, who went six innings and put zeros on the board for three straight after giving up a run in each of the first three frames.
With Hales' club down to its final three outs and down three runs, it was his junior ace who ignited the late rally.
"The last three games, she (Neel) is really starting to swing the bat ... and that's all I can ask for is someone who wants the ball and wants to put the pressure on her," Hales said.
Neel pumped a lead-off double to center that fired up the visiting dugout. Ava Basolt followed with her second hit of the contest, then Trinity Gaither smacked a two-RBI hit that cut the margin to 6-5 with no outs.
Faulkner came in to relive Fulcher and immediately got back-to-back outs. But a passed ball on the next at-bat saw Sydney Jackson score one of her team-high two runs that tied it at 6.
Faulkner ended the top half with the game still tied, then reached on an error to lead off the bottom half. Neel recorded two straight outs before Faulkner took second and eventually came around on Mangum's walk-off hit.
For Central, the victory marks its first conference tournament title since 2019.
That season didn't end until the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association postseason tourney, something Gaines and company hope to repeat starting next week.
"We're excited to see what's gonna happen in the state playoffs, what seed we get and what business we can do," she said.
The final brackets are scheduled to be released by the NCHSAA on Monday, May 9, with first-round games starting Tuesday, May 10.
Donnell Coley can be reached at email@example.com or 910-230-2040.