The fall sports season in Bartow County officially began Tuesday with Cartersville softball hosting Rockmart.
And from a defensive perspective, it certainly looked like a season opener. The defenses combined for seven errors, leading to five total unearned runs. Fittingly, it was a miscue in the top of the eighth inning that proved to be the difference in the Yellow Jackets' 6-4 road win over the Canes.
"In the eighth, it bit us," Cartersville head coach Shannon Suarez said of the fielding issues. "They capitalized off our mistake. That's something we didn't do. It's something that if we do, that game doesn't make it to the eighth inning and [instead] we win. That's a lesson, and we learn it the hard way."
Despite the sour ending, Suarez was pleased with the way her team battled back after falling behind 3-0 just four batters into the game.
"I learned a lot about the team," she said. "Obviously, not happy with the outcome, but the sequence of plays that got us to the eighth inning, I was proud of that.
"We got down early, gave up a three-spot in the first inning. That's something that we have a history of and want to get away from. ... I was really proud of how the team responded after the first inning. It isn't easy to come back from, especially against a quality hitting team. That's a credit to our pitching and our defense."
Rockmart, which went 26-4 in 2018, opened its season with a singled chopped through the middle by Alexis Teems. Emma Evans and Kinsey Jones followed with consecutive run-scoring triples before a groundout gave the Jackets a 3-0 cushion.
Cartersville freshman starting pitcher Kiley Arnold stranded the bases loaded in the inning to keep the Canes close. A two-out error in the second inning allowed Rockmart to tack on another run.
Arnold departed with two outs in the third inning, giving way to another ninth-grader in McKinley Chada. Cartersville has much greater pitching depth in 2019 with three freshmen and junior Anna Kate McElhaney expected to contribute in the circle.
"It could have got ugly for her," Suarez said of Arnold. "She kept her composure, and she hung tough. ... I felt it was time. Her pitch count was up. She wasn't getting ahead of batters, She was throwing a lot of balls, and I wanted to keep us in the game.
"McKinley stepped up. If she had jitters, she didn't show them. She came out, got ahead of hitters and located her pitches really well."
The Cartersville offense didn't register many hits, settling for five compared to 10 from Rockmart. However, Hope Short provided a key one in the first inning, ripping a line-drive home run over the left-field fence. The two-run shot brought home Elizabeth Nelson who had walked to open the frame.
"That was huge for us," Suarez said.
In the second inning, Mikey Lewis was hit by a pitch to begin the stanza. Mattie Johnson laid down a bunt, which led to three bad throws by the Jackets defense. By the time the dust had settled, Lewis was back safe in the Canes dugout, Johnson stood on third and the scoreboard read 4-3.
Even though Johnson wound up getting stranded 60 feet from home pate, Cartersville managed to tie the score in the fifth inning. McElhaney, who reached on an error to lead off the frame, scored on a wild pitch with two outs.
The Canes, who left eight runners on base, had a chance to walk off in the bottom of the seventh.
"We really started playing ball throughout the middle of the game," Suarez said. "[Innings] two through seven, we played good defense. We took advantage of a couple mistakes on their part. We were able to stay in the game and put ourselves in position to win the game. We didn't take advantage of the opportunity to do that."
Short came close to providing some heroics, but the senior's deep fly to center field was snagged at the fence. McElhaney reached on a single and moved around to third on a throwing error later in the inning. But a popup stranded two more runners and sent the game to extras.
"We talk a lot about the mental approach at the plate and knowing what a hitter's approach is, what their count is and what they can capitalize on," Suarez said. "We've got to keep drilling, because I didn't see enough of that today. A lot of them got into favorable counts but didn't have a favorable outcome."
Rockmart finally took its opportunity in the top of the eighth. A one-out single and a two-out double set the stage. But it was a combined wide throw and failure to secure said throw on a routine grounder to shortstop that proved to be the difference.
Cartersville, though, has little time to hang its head. A Thursday road trip to Cedartown for a Region 5-AAAA clash is just around the bend.
"It's only Day 1, we've got a lot of season left ahead of us," Suarez said. "There's lots still to be excited about. I saw a lot of good things today.
"I'm excited to come back out on Thursday against Cedartown, our first region game, see what we can do against them and hopefully get into the win column."