Central-Phenix City's Jaleigh Hardin stands in the box during the first inning of the Lady Red Devils' home area game against Smiths Station on Tuesday.

PHENIX CITY — When Central-Phenix City broke the huddle after Tuesday’s area contest with Smiths Station, the players’ faces lacked the joy one expects after an important rivalry victory.

Given the way the game ended and the expectations within the Central program, the reactions — or lack thereof — were easy to understand.

Central (13-3, 1-0) held on for dear life late against Smiths Station (7-9), as the Lady Red Devils gave up four runs in the final half-inning yet managed to walk away with a 10-7 victory. The game’s ending put a damper on a game in which the Lady Red Devils mostly dominated, having jumped out to a six-run lead by the fifth inning of action.

“(The difference) was just the team being one. That’s what it all boils down to,” Central coach Mitchell Holt said. “I told them, ‘We had a bad inning against Sparkman and against Smiths, and we won both games. That’s a testament to this team.’ One person doesn’t carry a team. Every kid out here is going to struggle. Every kid’s going to carry the team at some point. It’s how we handle those struggles that are going to make or break us for a season.

“The game is built on failure, and we’re going to struggle. How we handle those and how we have each other’s backs defines us a team.”

The Lady Red Devils only needed three outs in the top of the seventh to walk away with a 10-3 victory, but Smiths Station was going down swinging. Luckily for the Lady Panthers, several players took advantage of their final at-bats.

After Summer Lawrence walked to open the inning, a pair of groundouts followed by a wild pitch brought her home to cut the Lady Red Devils’ lead to six. From there, three errors on poor throws from third base along with Casey Ballou’s two-RBI single to left field took the game from a blowout to still up for grabs with one out to go.

Fortunately for Central, Desalynn Nesbitt finished the job. Nesbitt, who returned to close the game after starting the showdown in the circle, forced a flyout to second base to finally end Smiths Station’s late hot streak.

The Lady Panthers’ late heroics ignited a Smiths Station crowd that didn’t have much to say in the early innings.

Smiths Station pitcher Teena Morgan pushed her side up 1-0 in the opening frame with a solo home run, but the lead lasted only precisely two Central batters. Shelby Newsome delivered an RBI triple to right field to push across Central’s first run before Madison Hurt’s sacrifice fly and Jaleigh Hardin’s solo home run gave the home squad a 4-1 advantage.

For Holt, that quick response was crucial in Central taking the game over early.

“Smiths is always going to give you their best shot. They’re always going to be scrappy, they’re always going to give you their best shot and they’re always going to punch you in the mouth one inning. You’ve got to respond,” Holt said. “Most teams are built on momentum, and they are. When you respond, you kind of pull the momentum back in your direction. To respond is just a testament to this team and their maturity.”

Central seemed set to run away with the game after tacking on four more runs in the next two innings thanks to a wild pitch, Lane Thaxton’s two-run home run and Fallyn Jordan’s RBI single to third base.

Smiths Station cut the lead down to 8-3 in the fifth inning on Morgan’s RBI single to center field, but Central answered right back in the sixth with Jordan’s two-RBI double.

Jordan ended the game 2-for-3 with two RBIs, while Thaxton was 3-for-3 with three RBIs. For Smiths, Morgan was 2-for-3 with two RBIs.

Holt talked at length with his team after the game and emphasized how the team could grow from the late miscues and how they still should be applauded for not giving up. Holt said his team needs to continue to build on what they’ve been doing through 16 games; if they do, the season could truly be a special one.

“This is a team. We’ve worked really hard the past few years to build a team. These kids that are on this team and wear this uniform buy in. That’s the difference this year,” Holt said. “That’s why we can struggle and still win — they truly love each other, and they’re more happy when one of their teammates get the job done rather than themselves.”

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