BENSON — The Cleveland and West Johnston softball teams took a night off from their respective conference races Wednesday as the schools, separated by just six miles, renewed their new yet burgeoning rivalry.
The Rams set the tone early, constructed a big lead and held on to garner the win, splitting the season series with the Wildcats with a 7-4 triumph.
“This one meant something to them,” Cleveland coach Samantha Coats said, alluding to the importance her club placed on the game. “They play travel ball with those girls, they’re 4A, we’re 3A. It’s a huge rivalry between them and us.
“This is definitely a big game for those girls and especially our seniors who won’t get to play them anymore.”
Cleveland starting pitcher Taylor Drayton earned the win in allowing West Johnston just four runs on four hits while striking out seven batters.
Drayton’s cause was helped by a four-run second inning that saw the Rams stretch their lead to 5-0. Alexis Ivey reached base on a one-out single and pinch runner Rilee Knott then advanced to second base when the Wildcats throw to second base on the ensuing grounder ricocheted off Knott’s helmet.
Jodi Morgan then doubled to right field to score both Knott and Elizabeth McIver for a 3-0 lead. Maura Mangum later singled to plate Morgan and Drayton raced home to put the Wildcats in a five-run hole on the first of five errors on the night for West Johnston.
“It was a hole, but it was a hole that we shouldn’t have dug,” West Johnston coach Warren Singleton recounted. “Our performance tonight was not representative of what we can do. We just didn’t show up.”
The Wildcats clawed back with a Nadia Blevins sacrifice fly in the bottom of the third and then when Blevins stole second before advancing to third and ultimately home plate on a pair of Cleveland errors in the fifth.
The Rams tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the sixth against West relief pitcher Megan Mills, who had earned the victory the first time the two teams met in a dominating performance.
Cleveland applied pressure to the Wildcats’ defense by focusing almost solely on the bunt to generate the two runs that all but sealed the game.
A bunt single from Alliyah Sands was followed by three West errors that resulted from confusion surrounding fielding several more bunts from the Rams which eventually allowed Sands and Knott to score.
“They realized that we couldn’t play the bunt and they capitalized on that,” Singleton said. “Tomorrow is a new day; tomorrow is a new game. I told them that today was not representative of what we can do and not up to our caliber of play and we need to just be prepared to start a new game tomorrow.”
An Ashley McLaren RBI triple and a Mills sacrifice fly in the sixth inched the Wildcats to within 7-4 but Drayton finished strong in the pitchers circle and retired West Johnston in order to close out the game in the seventh.
The Wildcats dropped to 7-4 on the season but maintain a 4-2 record in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference, good enough to be just a half game behind league leaders East Wake and Garner.
The win improved Cleveland’s overall record to 9-3 on the season but the Rams find themselves in a tight race at the top of the Two Rivers 3A Conference standings tied with South Johnston and Triton (a 3-0 loser to Corinth Holders Wednesday night) with 4-1 marks.
After defeating the Wildcats Wednesday, the Rams have avenged two of their three losses this season with Garner being the other team that Cleveland has split the season series, leaving South Johnston as the sole team to beat the Rams with the favor not being returned.
“We play one game at a time and when that game is over; we’ve got to focus on the next game,” Coats said. “We’re going to enjoy this win tonight and then we have a new game tomorrow that we have to focus on.
“These wins are awesome but you’ve got to move on to the next game.”