The Cleveland Rams softball team defeated the Southwestern Randolph Cougars 2-1 in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs on Friday.
A sacrifice bunt by freshman Camryn Barbour in the fifth inning brought home the winning run for the Rams and advanced Cleveland (19-5) to the third round.
Cleveland moves on to play Orange in a battle of two conference champions. Both teams will be among the final 16 teams in the state. Orange defeated Topsail in an extra innings game on Friday to advance to the third round.
The Rams were led by sophomore pitcher Anna Kate Gilchrist who struck out twelve batters and tallied one of her team’s four hits on the night.
“She loves this game and she works harder than anybody I’ve ever coached,” said Cleveland coach Jason Morris. “She’s very coachable and I just enjoy the opportunity of being able to work with her.”
While Gilchrist held the Cougars (17-5) to only one run on the night, her teammates gave her the run support she needed.
After falling behind 1-0 in the fourth inning on an RBI double by Southwestern Randolph senior Kirsten Lowe, Cleveland responded with a run of their own.
Junior Julia Wiggs doubled for the Rams and senior Ali Papworth followed her up with another double for back to back hits and the equalizing run.
Cleveland took the lead in the fifth on Barbour’s sacrifice bunt. With Pietak on second base and only one out, Barbour laid down a bunt towards third base. The throw was on time and Southwest Randolph sophomore Kenzie Whitson caught the ball to tag Barbour out but the two collided at first base and Ritter dropped the ball. This allowed Pietak to make it home for what became the winning run.
“Tonight we were very fortunate with a play that went our way and it put us on top,” said Morris.
Cleveland is a team with lots of younger players, playing only three seniors and one junior on a roster otherwise populated with underclassmen.
Age has not been a burden for the Cleveland defense so far, as they have held opponents to five or less runs in 20 of their 24 games this season. Their youth shows itself more on the offensive end.
“Finding a way for those girls to play together in different age groups has been interesting, watching the cohesion come together,” said Morris. “We’ve just got to keep working on our offensive game. We’ve got to find a way to scratch and claw.”
The Rams were able to do that against the Cougars, manufacturing runs in any way possible. In a defensive battle where a sacrifice bunt won the game, runs were at a premium and Cleveland delivered just enough to win.
If their offense can maintain some level of consistency, Cleveland will thrive in low scoring games and might find a way to turn this season’s success into a deeper run after a third round exit last year.
“This is our first year where we won our conference tournament and our conference too,” said Morris. “Going to the sweet 16 is icing on the cake right now.”