The Apex-Cary rivalry hit the Cary High softball field Tuesday night, with the Cougars getting the best of their Southwest Wake Athletic Conference foes 7-2 behind juniors Julia Cerasi and Kaitlyn Long.
Cerasi pitched a complete game, giving up four hits and striking out five, while teammate Long had two hits and four runs batted in.
Apex (4-2, 2-2 SWAC) has rebounded after a tough start, while the Imps (0-5, 0-3) are still looking for their first win under first-year coach Bryana Bass.
Turning point: Cary got back in the game with a run in the bottom of the fifth to cut Apex’s lead to 3-2, but the Cougars broke it open with four in the sixth. Bailey Hathaway drove in the first run with an infield single that also loaded the bases, and catcher Long emptied them with a double to the center-field wall.
“She comes through a lot,” Apex coach Bonnie Hodge said. “She is one of our returning players and is a big stick on our lineup. She steps up when it’s time for her to step up.”
Long, though, said it wasn’t one of her better games.
“I felt like my blocking behind the plate wasn’t as on point as it has been before. The first game back from spring break, seeing the ball live again was a little bit more difficult than it has been,” Long said.
Her hitting didn’t seem to be affected, as she went 2-for-4.
“I have a cage in my backyard, and I hit with my dad,” Long said. “I was trying to keep that up. I’ve had problems with my swing in years’ past, so I’ve been trying to get back where I used to be and working really hard on keeping my swing.”
Highlight reel: Another key moment came in the Cary fifth. Priscilla Sanchez walked to open the inning, and Erica Hayes ripped a ball that appeared headed to right field. But Cougar second baseman Cassie Healy dove to her left to smother it and throw Hayes out. Two more walks followed in what could have been a big inning for the Imps, but Cerasi got out of it by getting Vicki Bentancur to ground out and Bethany Volkmar to pop out.
Unsung hero: Cerasi walked seven, hit two batters and was seemingly in trouble all night. But she wiggled out of every jam, thanks in part to solid defense behind her. Apex committed only one error, and the Cougar infield defense of third baseman Lauren Barrett, shortstop McKenna Harbour, Healy and first baseman Olivia Chiarolanzio made all the plays.
Unsung hero No. 2: While Bass is trying to remake the Cary softball culture, she’s leaned on two of her seniors, catcher Volkmar and backup Carly Robertson. Volkmar is the vocal type, constantly barking instructions and encouragement to hear teammates.
“She’s amazing,” Bass said. “Her leadership skills are going to get her very far. I told her that whatever she does in life, she’s going to be so successful, just because she’s very mature, she’s a leader. She’s awesome.”
Putting up numbers: Cougar leadoff batter Healy was on base twice and scored two runs, while Hathaway had two hits, a walk, a sacrifice and an RBI in the No. 2 hole. That helped No. 3 hitter Long drive in four runs, while cleanup hitter Chiarolanzio drove in a run with a double in the fifth.
Cary’s two runs batted didn’t come on base hits. Freshman leadoff hitter Emily Velazquez, returning from an injury, drove in the first Imp run on a walk, while Bentancur’s groundout in the fifth drove in the other.
Imp relief pitcher Kaitlynn Spielman was sharp, retiring five of the six batters she faced.
Needs improvement: Cary had runners on base in every inning but left 13 on base, including the bases loaded in the second and seventh.
Out of bounds: Volkmar went to the mound to talk to her pitcher, Sanchez, in the Apex fourth in a conversation that had Sanchez chuckling.
“It’s something I probably shouldn’t say on the record,” Volkmar said. “(I’ll do) anything I can possibly do to get her mind off pitching, make her laugh, say something she wouldn’t expect – to get her thinking about something totally different.”
Best quote: Bass on her team being fired up to play its rival: “I wish they had that ‘oomph’ every game. I’m trying to get the ‘oomph’ to come to Cary High School. Apex has the ‘oomph’; they want it. … If this team had been at every other game, we would be 4-1.”
Feeling the impact: Apex has won two conference games in a row after losing to Middle Creek and Fuquay to start the SWAC season. Hodge is in “a rebuilding year to a certain extent,” she said, after losing five starters from last year’s team. Six of Tuesday’s starters are underclassmen, so it’s a work in progress for the Cougars.
“We haven’t really played together very much,” Long said. “The snow at the beginning of the year put us out a little bit, but we’re starting to jell a little bit more. We had a little bit of a rough start to the season, but as we play more, we’re getting to know each other more. We’re playing together as a team more.”
The state playoffs are still within reach.
“That’s our goal every year, to go to playoffs,” Hodge said. “But right now, we’re taking it one game at a time. Hopefully the next time we see Cary, we’re going to be even better and stronger.”
Going forward: Bass, a former Meredith College softball player, was an assistant at Athens Drive a season ago, filling in while Jaguars coaches Breanna and Neill Tapp had a baby. Bass is 22 years old and in her first head coaching position, and her challenge is great at an Imp program that hasn’t seen much success in recent years.
“I’m trying to make up for a little bit of damage I felt like was done here,” Bass said. “I say that from an outside perspective, but coming in here, I felt like there was some damage. I’m trying to make the girls enjoy the game again, because some of them were at the point where they didn’t want to try out.”
Bass sees improvement, and Cary battled to the end Tuesday. The Imps dugout was still loud in the bottom of the seventh, despite being down 7-2.
“The game today reflected the way we’ve been playing,” Volkmar said. “We’ve been playing a lot better this year. We have a great head coach who really cares about us, and she’s doing everything she possibly can to pick this team. Hopefully, our wins will start reflecting the way we’re playing, but I truly believe we’ve never been closer, and we’re a stronger team.”