Cleveland American shortstop Reese Penny offered a simple answer to explain how her team survived the losers’ bracket to reach the state championship of the Tar Heel Leagues’ ages 8-and-under softball tournament.
“You get to keep playing if you win,” Penny said. “Playing is fun.”
Penny sparked the Angels offensively and defensively in an 18-17 extra-inning victory over Shelby to lift Cleveland American into the final Sunday at Smithfield Community Park.
Shortly after beating Shelby, the Angels took the field against Burke County, but Burke claimed the state title with a 13-5 victory in a game called after five innings. Teams in the 8-under are limited to five runs an inning, so an eight-run lead in the bottom of the fifth mathematically ended the six-inning regulation contest.
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Burke, which had a bye in the first round, completed a 4-0 run to the state championship. The Angels were confronted with beating Burke two in a row in the double-elimination tournament to be crowned state champs.
Cleveland American, which had a first-round bye, won its first two games of the four-day tournament with decisions over Ahoskie in the second round and Wilkes County in the third. But a loss in the next game, the first meeting with Burke, bumped the Angels into the losers’ bracket. That set up the Cleveland American-Shelby elimination matchup.
The teams were tied 14-14 with Shelby batting in the top of the sixth. Shelby had runners on first and second with no outs when Penny made two defensive plays to stem the rally. She caught a high popup for the first out and fielded a ground ball for a force out at third. A third out was recorded to end the threat.
“I just did what my Daddy and my coaches have taught me,” Penny said.
After Shelby held Cleveland American scoreless in the bottom of the sixth, Shelby bounced back with three runs in the top of the seventh for a 17-14 lead. But the Angels weren’t finished.
Penny led off with the first of five straight singles to score four runs for the victory. Delanie McComons followed with a single and Penny and McComons both came home on Skylar Hodges’ single. Madison Brown added a single and then a two-run single by Lily Doepp scored Hodges and Brown to end the contest.
“These girls never quit,” Cleveland American coach Randy Hodges said. “The girls made some errors, but they picked each other up. They did it with hitting. I can’t say how proud I am of them.”
Penny said the team listened to Hodges’ advice in a quick huddle before batting in the bottom of the seventh.
“He said, ‘If you get hits, we keep playing,’ ” she said.
The 8-under final was one of five age-group state championships decided at Smithfield Community Park with three softball fields. The other four were 10U, 12U, 14U and 17U. Cleveland National was the only area team to reach a championship game.
“It’s always nice to have a Johnston County and District V team representing us in the final,” said tournament director Gary “Cousy” Johnson. “Cleveland American played well and they deserved to be in the final as one of the two best teams in the state.”
After Cleveland American, the Johnston County South’s 10U team’s third-place finish was the highest among area schools. Johnston County South defeated Ahoskie and Shelby before losing to Roanoke and Wilkes County.
Two other area teams joined Cleveland American in the 8-under bracket. Cleveland National and Johnston County North both lost their first two games.