Meagen Johnson has been the softball coach at Carolina Forest just long enough that her players are able to read her warning signs.
The ultra-talented Panthers moved up to No. 1 in the Class AAAA state rankings earlier Monday and are No. 25 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 national ranking. And even though Johnson’s team defeated Socastee 5-3 on the road Monday, the coach let her team know it wasn’t enough.
“Normally we go right to our bus to have our conversation,” senior shortstop Marisa Runyon said of the team’s post-game meeting. “But she sent us to left field and we knew; we could just kind of see it in her eyes that she was very mad. Obviously we’re happy with a win, but we’re not happy with the way we’ve played the last two games. We can be so much more. You can see that it’s getting to her, and hopefully it will start getting to us, too.”
The Braves pushed Carolina Forest maybe as much as any other opponent has so far this year. Only three of the team’s wins have come by fewer than three runs. And for the Panthers – who moved to 11-0 with the victory – back-to-back two-run victories isn’t going to cut it.
They see something bigger down the line, and if the team is going to make a return trip to the Class AAAA state championship, the effort has to improve. That was the message Johnson delivered to her squad during that postgame speech in left field.
“We try to tell them not to get too comfortable, to stay humble and stay hungry,” Johnson said. “I’ve tried to tell them that. Just because your record is what it is doesn’t mean you’re going to coast. You still have to work hard, and they still have to play hard in every game.
“That’s our big thing we’re trying to get them to do – to want more.”
Johnson, whose team will play Region VI-AAAA rival Conway at home Tuesday night, elected to go with a backup pitcher to conserve regular starter Emily Merriam. Angelina Santoro did her job for the most part. Normal center fielder Sara Sweatt was also again held out after suffering a concussion 10 days ago.
What Johnson was stressing to her players, however, was aggressiveness on the base paths and with the bats. After all, the team that entered the night averaging more than nine runs per game had a lackluster night by its own standards.
Runyon rebounded from a bases-loaded strikeout in the third inning to hit a three-run home run in the fifth. Her hook slide to beat a throw home off Natalie Hardwick’s two-out single in the seventh then gave the Panthers an insurance run going into the bottom half of the last inning.
The team’s next three games will come against region opponents, and more victories there could further impact the state and national rankings.
“They know they’re talented,” Johnson said. “But then again, when you have the eyes on you and you have the expectation, I think it helps them focus. When we remind ourselves of that, we’re like ‘This is what we’re capable of. Let’s do it.’ ”
Runyon echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“I feel like we’re getting too comfortable. We put on the Panther jersey and we think we’re going to win. We can’t let it get to our heads, or we’re going to have problems. We have to play higher than the team we’re playing,” she said.