It may not have been a perfect effort put forth by the Lee County softball team as the Yellow Jackets played host to Cleveland in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs Wednesday night, but it was mighty close.
The fourth-seeded Yellow Jackets, helped by a dominant performance in the pitchers circle from Whitney Sanford, used a big first inning to jump out on top and then coast to a 4-0 victory to advance to the fourth round.
Sanford didn’t allow a base hit until the top of the sixth inning as the junior pitcher was in complete control, striking out 13 batters and permitting just three Rams to get on base, two by way of singles and one by a walk.
Sanford worked ahead in the count all night, recording first-pitch strikes against 20 of the 24 she faced.
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The key for the Cape Fear Valley champions, however, came in the field as the Yellow Jackets, prone to extending opponents’ innings through miscues at times this season, were solid defensively.
“Whitney’s done a great job at getting ahead in the count all year and getting on top of batters,” said Lee County coach Miles McCaskill. “Tonight, she did a phenomenal job at getting ahead but tonight we also didn’t have any errors behind her. We did not give up that extra base inning that we’ve done several times a couple times a game.
“The team’s really growing by the fact that they are realizing they don’t have to be perfect but they’ve got to be solid and tonight they were solid.”
After Sanford struck out three in the top of the first inning, the Yellow Jackets went to work in the home half of the frame to give the Wingate University commit all the run support she would need.
Caroline Wilson drew a leadoff walk and Jacie Arrington laced a single to left field to get things started.
After Sanford advanced Wilson to third base on a groundout, Tessa Wilson drove home the leading runner with a RBI single. Morgan Pedley drove in another run on a grounder to shortstop Kayla Womack before Savannah Patterson capped off the inning with a RBI single to left that plated Tessa Wilson.
“That was awesome for me,” Sanford said. “I was so glad that my team could put runs on the board for me. From a pitcher’s standpoint, that really relaxes me and makes me want to do better. It was a huge relief off my shoulders.”
After the tough opening inning, senior Cleveland pitcher Taylor Drayton settled into a groove and kept the Rams within striking distance. Drayton allowed just one more run on a Braynka Brown run-scoring single in the third and only four more hits through her last five innings of work.
Drayton also led off the top of the seventh inning and became the only to Ram to get into scoring position all night but Cleveland couldn’t find a way to bring her home.
“She did an awesome job for us tonight,” Cleveland coach Jason Morris said. “She struggled at times but she fought through it. You couldn’t ask for a better leader.”
Womack broke up Sanford’s no-hitter with a single to right field with two outs in the sixth inning. Becca Straka was the only other batter to reach base as she worked a walk in the first inning.
The No. 12 seeded Rams finished the year at 17-7 after tying for second place in the Two Rivers 3A Conference and will lose a trio of seniors: Drayton, Alexis Ivey and Anna Twisdale.
“It’s been an awesome ride,” said Morris. “We had a lot of awesome seven-inning wins, come-from-behind victories and this team never gave up. Tonight was no exception.”
The Yellow Jackets will move on to face either top-seeded Pikeville C.B. Aycock or Orange in the fourth round.