Chesapeake's boisterous, drum-banging, bell-clanging fans must have had a couple of voodoo dolls stashed away during Saturday's Class 4A Region IV softball finals.
Just when it seemed that North County was on the verge of dethroning the two-time defending state and region champs, an untimely error or a stupendous defensive play snatched the host Cougars out of danger in the nick of time.
Call it luck, skill, divine intervention or better yet, maybe even deja vu.
Whatever it may have been, it was enough to give Chesapeake an 11-inning, 3-2 win -- and a chance to win its third straight state title as it advances into Tuesday's state semifinals for the fifth time in the last six years.
Last spring, on the last day of the regular season, the Cougars (18-1) prevented the 18-4 Knights from qualifying for the region playoffs in their inaugural season -- fighting back from a 4-0, fifth-inning deficit to dump North County, 5-4.
This spring, the queens of county diamonds capitalized on pitcher Karen Hay's three-base throwing error on Stacy Neccessary's routine grounder to even the score at two in the 11th inning.
Then, North County first baseman Kim Horney mishandled Natalie Black's squeeze bunt, allowing Necessary to score the game-clincher from third.
"We've been the cardiac kids all year long," said Chesapeake coach Dennis Thiele. "You can't make those kinds of mistakes against us. Once we find a weakness, we take advantage of it."
The Knights' four errors overshadowed what was a marvelous duel between two top-flight pitchers.
Hay (14-3), who Coach Sue Fitchett said "pitched the finest game of the year," struck out 18 batters and went 2-for-4 at the plate in a losing cause.
Winning hurler Lori Congdon (11-0) fought off arm fatigue to punch out 17.
"I was getting a little tired. I just couldn't wait for it to end," said Congdon. "But I had lots of confidence in my defense. They played an excellent game, and Natalie called a great game."
Thiele said, "For a spell, we were kind of nervous at the plate because Karen [Hay] was really bringing them in there. But we've noticed that she loses her concentration during the late stages of a game, especially against us, and I think that's what happened today."
The visitors drew first blood in the top of the fourth, when Tina Armstrong blooped a 2-1 delivery for a double to drive in lead-off hitter Nicki Faulkner, who had opened the inning with a bloop single.
Chesapeake tied the game at one in the fifth, taking advantage of poor North County fielding.
Michelle Manner's one-out, infield single was followed by Nancy Yeager, who reached on an error when Kim Horney misplayed her bunt. Melissa Wagner pinch ran for Manner, and scored one out later when short stop T. C. Horney scooped up a grounder by Necessary and threw the ball past first.
Alert right fielder Kristie Rhinehart prevented further damage, however, when she scooped up the loose ball and fired to catcher Lisa Garrison, who tagged Yeager to get the Knights out of the inning.
North County grabbed its final lead in the top of the 11th when Garrison scored on a swing bunt by Tonya Kolodziejski.
"My kids did a heck of a job to hang in the game," said Thiele. "After [North County] took the lead for the second time, we could have packed up and said 'let's go home,' but we didn't."
Fitchett said, "In my opinion, that was the state championship game. Chesapeake is a very opportunistic team, and they have the speed and the hustle to win the championship."