FOUR OAKS — If it appeared that both the Cleveland and South Johnston softball teams played like champions Friday night in their North Carolina High School Athletic Association fourth-round 3A playoff matchup, it’s because both were champions.
The co-champions of the Two Rivers 3A locked horns one final time with a berth in the Eastern Regional final series on the line, and after the dust settled, the Trojans held on for a 2-1 victory.
South Johnston (22-3) will advance to take on Pikeville C.B. Aycock, a former conference opponent, in a best-of-3 series next week.
The Trojans will enter the series battle-tested.
“They played as if they wanted to win the game and that doesn’t surprise me because when you get down to the final eight in states, it doesn’t matter what the records are, it doesn't matter what the past results are, the most important thing is to get one more run than the opponent and that’s what we did,” South Johnston coach Mickey Bridgers said of Friday’s triumph.
“You really have to tip your hat to Cleveland because they played like a champion … but so did we.”
The Rams jumped on top in the first inning.
Leadoff hitter Krista Collins reached on an error, stole second and scored on a line drive from Kayla Allen. Allen advanced to second on the throw back into the infield, then stole third and scored what turned out to be the winning run on Madison Byrd’s flyout.
“It was big and I didn’t realize how big it was going to be,” Bridgers said. “Any time you can score early, it does give your team confidence.
“Those two runs were huge.”
South Johnston defeated Cleveland in three of their four matchups this season, with the three wins coming by a combined 27-5. However, if the early two-run lead boosted the confidence for the Trojans players, it did little to diminish the confidence of Rams starting pitcher Taylor Drayton.
Drayton, a sophomore who in the final regular-season game helped deal South Johnston its only home loss of the year, allowed just one hit over the final six innings.
“What I am so proud of is that we didn’t give up,” said Cleveland coach Samantha Coats. “We were down from the beginning and they fought, they fought the whole time and that’s more important than what that score says for me.”
“That’s why we’ve made it this far is because we haven’t given up all season. I couldn’t be more proud of them and more proud to be part of the team.”
South Johnston starting pitcher Lauren Higgins also was putting together a dominant performance.
The senior struck out four batters and elicited 11 flyouts in a four-hitter.
The Rams got on the board in the seventh when Jodi Morgan’s sharply hit ball got past the infield, allowing Alexis Ivey to score.
With Morgan representing the tying run on first base, Becca Straka sent a hard shot that seemed destined to find the outfield, but McKinley Johnson made a great play and fired to first to send the Trojans to the regional finals for the first time since 2010.
The Rams outhit South Johnston four to two but stranded five runners. Morgan hit a ball just a foot foul over the left-field fence and Brittany Bucklin lined out to Johnson at second for an inning-ending double play with a runner in scoring position in the sixth.
“Sometimes the hits don’t go where you need them to go at the right times,” Coats said. “South Johnston is a great team and I wish them the best of luck.”
Bucklin, Ivey, Maura Mangum and Alliyah Sands recorded the hits for Cleveland (17-7). Taylor finished with four strikeouts and just one walk on the mound.
Seniors Bucklin, Nicole Johnson and Heather McLean helped build the foundation for a program in just its fourth year of existence.
“I’m going to miss them terribly,” Coats said of her senior class. “They have been great leaders and role models for our team. It’s going to be hard to replace them for sure.”