GLEN BURNIE — It's hard to imagine that an 11-0 softball blowout could hinge on just a key sequence or two, but that's what happened to Francis Scott Key yesterday in its first trip to the state softball tournament.
The Eagles batted and ran themselves out of a potentially big offensive performance in the top of the fourth inning, then North Caroline made all the right moves in the bottom of the frame to blow open a close contest.
Key should have had the bases loaded in the fourth. Wendy Galandak would have walked to open the frame if she hadn't swung at a pitch way out of the strike zone. Then, with runners on first and second and two out, Lori Woodson was thrown out trying to advance to third on a passed ball.
That preserved the Bulldogs' 1-0 lead and ended their best offensive hope of the afternoon.
North Caroline responded by delivering seven singles and a walk and took advantage of a Key error to build a 9-0 lead. Key pitcher Cathi Bower also was called for an illegal pitch, when she failed to keep her foot on the rubber during her windup.
"If we could have scored one or two runs (in the second inning) it might have made a difference," said Key coach Joe Linthicum, whose team reached the state tournament after going 1-16 a year ago.
North Caroline pitcher Michelle Butler, though occasionally erratic, kept the Eagles off-balance most of the game. She struck out eight while walking six and induced Key into six infield groundouts.
The Eagles also popped up to the infield several times and onlyonce flied out to the outfield.
Key also didn't get a base hit until the sixth inning, when Erin Murphey and pinch hitter Mindy Keeneyeach delivered singles.
"Michelle keeps the ball low," said Margie Knight, the Bulldog's coach. "If you do that, you'll get a lot of ground-ball outs."
North Caroline had the added advantage of state tournament experience. The Bulldogs have been to the final four five of the past six years and won the state title in 1988.
"All of theseniors on this team were freshmen on that team," Knight said.
Itwas that experience, the coach said, that allowed Butler to hang tough even when Key threatened early in the game.
"She's been in quite a few state championship softball playoffs and volleyball playoffs," Knight said.
Still, she said, the Bulldogs were sweating it out until a few timely hits allowed the team to use its speed on the basepaths.
"I was glad to see us start hitting," she said of the fourth-inning rally. "We have played exceptionally well in the playoffs."
Linthicum lifted Bower in favor of reliever Amber Smith, who quickly cooled the Bulldogs' bats. North Caroline did manage two runs in the bottom of the sixth inning on one hit, two walks and a pair of errors.
But the Key coach said while he was disappointed by the final margin, he certainly enjoyed the season.
"I can't be disappointed with this season," Linthicum said of the 13-8 record. "I give them (North Caroline) their due.
"North Caroline has been here many times before. Next time, I'll be a little better prepared."
North Caroline, now 17-4, advances to Friday's title game here against undefeated Clear Spring of Washington County.