CLAYTON — With just four miles separating Cleveland and West Johnston, the two high schools becoming rivals was almost a foregone conclusion when Cleveland opened its doors in 2010.
But in the local prep softball world, one in which West Johnston has become one of the perennial powers in the area 4A ranks, the upstart Rams’ climb to join the caliber of the Wildcats has understandably taken a little bit of time to get off the ground.
But after falling victim to West Johnston in each of its first four tries over its first two years of existence, the Cleveland softball team proved with a 3-2 win Wednesday night that their program is on the verge of reaching some great heights of its own.
Mackenzie Cornell drove in all three Cleveland runs including the ultimate game-winning solo homerun in the bottom of the sixth inning on an 0-2 pitch to lift the Rams to their first-ever win over their neighbors to the southwest.
“It was amazing,” Cleveland starting pitcher Brittany Bucklin said of beating the Wildcats for the first time. “I think the momentum from tonight will carry over and help us.”
Cornell gave Cleveland the lead in the third with a RBI double to left field that scored Brittany Bucklin and Kaitlyn Cowell, who started off the inning with back-to-back singles.
West came back with two runs in the fifth. Danielle Myers doubled in Mikaela Parker before she later scored on an error to knot the game at two runs.
Seeing double: West Johnston had its chances to add to its run total but was denied, in part, to four double plays turned in by the Cleveland defense.
Twice the Rams ended the West Johnston half of the inning with double plays.
Most troubling to the Wildcats cause came in the second inning with the bases loaded and just one out. Amber West lined out to third baseman Brianna Morgan who then stepped on third base in time to secure the force out.
“We had some opportunities and got the bases loaded,” West Johnston coach Warren Singleton said. “But we just couldn’t swing the bat well enough to get them around.”
Powerful performance: Despite the tough loss and pitching in just the Wildcats’ second game of the season, West Johnston ace Christina Gower was in midseason form for much of the night.
Mixing her speed location well, Gower struck out 11 batters including three in a row in the first inning to retire the Rams after allowing the first two hitters to reach base safely.
Bouncing back: Cleveland responded well both after its first loss of the season, a 7-1 defeat at Triton the night before, and surrendering the 2-0 lead against their community rivals.
“To come off of a loss to Triton yesterday and then come in today against a team like West Johnston and be playing and hitting on all cylinders, it’s big for this school; it’s big for this community,” said Cleveland coach John Wood.
“Everything went our way and I couldn’t be prouder of these girls.”
In addition to Cornell’s big night, Bucklin and freshman Alexis Ivey both registered two hits as well.
Going forward: Due to some issues with rainouts and early season scheduling, West Johnston is off to a little bit of a late start this season.
The loss to the Rams was just the Wildcats’ second game of the season—the other being a 24-0 win over Smithfield-Selma—while Cleveland upped its mark to 7-1 on the year.
But thanks to a veteran club that returns many players from its squad that ventured into the third round of the state 4A playoffs a season ago, Singleton has no need to worry about any rust.
“We’ve got some seniors at some critical positions,” Singleton said. “They’re ready. I think we’ve got a solid team.”
Proud Dad: After seeing his daughter’s shot to centerfield soar over the scoreboard for what turned out to be the game-winning hit, Greg Cornell did what any good Dad would do: get the ball.
But, unfortunately for this should-be “Dad of the Year” nominee, Cornell had to hop a fence in order to retrieve the ball and broke his heel bone in half while so doing.
However, by all accounts, Cornell passed along that the sojourn to Johnston Medical Hospital for X-rays as well as the cast that is sure to come was well worth it.