CLAYTON — The Cleveland softball team was issued a challenge in its matchup against Cardinal Gibbons in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A state playoffs as the Crusaders jumped out on top early.
The Rams and more specifically, their bats, were up to the challenge, however, and stormed back for a 13-5 win that gave Cleveland, in its fourth season, its first NCHSAA softball playoff victory.
The Rams pounded out 17 hits with five different hitters recording multi-hit games and each batter getting at least one basehit.
“I feel like every team at some point is going to be down, you’re going to have a bad inning but it’s how you bounce back from it,” said Cleveland coach Samantha Coats. “They did an awesome job. I’m excited to still keep going.”
Cardinal Gibbons, which finished fourth in the Big Eight Conference, tried to set the tone early.
The Crusaders touched Cleveland starting pitcher Taylor Drayton up for three runs in the top of the first inning on an Elizabeth Pederson walk, a Joelle Devita bunt single and back-to-back RBI doubles from Maria Annunziata and Kassidy Wood.
Cleveland was able to respond immediately, however, and strung together six consecutive hits in the bottom of the first inning to post four runs and grab the lead.
The inning was highlighted by a Heather McLean RBI double, a Brittany Bucklin solo homerun, and a pair of RBI singles from Alexis Ivey and Elizabeth McIver.
“It was pretty big,” Bucklin said of her team responding right after the Crusaders took the early lead. “Going down by three runs in the first inning kind of brings most teams down but we didn’t get down, we stayed up.”
Drayton got stronger as the game wore on as well and allowed just two more runs on seven hits over the final six innings as the sophomore pitcher struck out eight.
Maura Mangum, Jodi Morgan and Alliyah Sands led the Rams with three hits apiece while McIver, McLean and Ivey each notched two hits to lead the offensive charge.
Despite the early departure for the Crusaders, first-year coach Veronica Ross knows it was a successful season and that her team has gained valuable experience this season, priming them to be a force in the upcoming years.
“One of the goals that we set from the very beginning was to learn and to get better,” Ross said. “I can say that my girls absolutely learned things in practice; we learned from every game.”
The top of the lineup for Cardinal Gibbons — Pederson, Devita, Annunziata and Wood—each had two hits and Annunziata, the Crusaders’ lone senior, drove in three of her team’s five runs.
“We’re going to miss Maria,” Cardinal Gibbons coach Veronica Ross said. “She has a very strong bat and has also been a leader for us.
“She’s an awesome player; we’re going to miss her very much.”
Cleveland will take on either Burlington Williams or Central Davidson in the second round later this week.