Alexander Central’s rich softball tradition was too much for Cleveland’s to overcome in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A softball championship series.
The Rams, making their first state finals appearance in any sport since the Johnston County school opened in 2010, fell to Alexander Central 6-4 in an 11-inning Game 2 on Saturday at UNC-Greensboro. The Cougars’ comeback victory completed a sweep of the best-of-three series 2-0 after Alexander Central had won the Friday night opener, 2-0.
“This was our first time here, and we’re looking forward to fielding a tradition of excellence,” Cleveland coach Jason Morris said. “We’ve got a lot of talent on this team. They figured out a way to play together this year.”
The Cougars’ win marked the 10th state title overall for the school from Taylorsville. Alexander Central (28-5) won back-to-back 4A championships in 2013 and 2014 as well as crowns in 2009 and 2011 before this year’s move down to 3A.
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Adding to the state championship pressure, Game 2 lasted nearly three hours before a weather delay for lightning occurred in the bottom of the 11th. That added another hour to the marathon. The Friday night game also suffered from weather delays.
“I think they were more prepared for weather delays and that sort of thing than we were,” Morris said. “I did a lot of learning from it myself. I think we’ll use that knowledge moving forward.”
Cleveland (20-5) was within one out of forcing a Game 3, but Alexander Central scored three runs in top of the seventh to tie the score 4-4 and force extra innings.
The rally began with a two-out walk to Lanie Goforth, the star of Friday night’s game with her diving catch at the centerfield fence that killed Cleveland’s sixth inning rally.
Julie Gast followed with an infield single and pitcher Chesney Millsaps singled to score Goforth from second. Senior catcher Alexis Walter then tied the game with a double to the right-center field gap that brought home and Gast and Millsaps.
Cleveland junior pitcher Anna Kate Gilchrist started Saturday’s game after senior Julia Wiggs was the tough-luck loser of a one-hitter on Friday night. A Cleveland double-play helped Gilchrist escape a 10th-inning jam, which brought on Wiggs to start the 11th.
Wiggs got the leadoff batter, but then Alexi Rash singled, stole second, advanced to third on a passed ball and scored on No. 9 hitter Grace Rhoney’s sacrifice fly to center field. The Cougars got an insurance run when Goforth walked, stole second and came home on Gast’s single.
In a contrast to Friday’s pitchers’ duel, Alexander Central opened Game 2 leading 1-0 in the top of the first, but Cleveland’s youth didn’t wilt. The Rams – Wiggs is the only senior – answered with three runs in the bottom of the first.
Two of Cleveland’s first-inning runs were unearned. Kayla Womack singled, advanced to third on Nikki Piatek’s single and scored on a throwing error to first when Gilchrist put down a sacrifice bunt attempt. Piatek advanced to third on the throwing error and scored on a sacrifice fly by Wiggs. Caris Allen scored upon reaching first on a fielder’s choice, advancing to third on Camryn Barbour’s single to right field and scoring on an errant throw trying to prevent her from reaching third base.
Cleveland bumped its lead to 4-1 with a run in the bottom of the fifth inning when Barbour drove a fly ball to the center field fence that easily scored Gilchrist on a tag up from third base.
But base running prevented the Rams for capitalizing with more fifth-inning insurance runs.
Before Gilchrist made it 4-1, Piatek, who was 3-of-5 with a run scored for the day, was caught in a rundown between third base and home after an infield bouncer drew a throw home. Piatek was tagged retreating to third.
Game 1: Alexander Central wins 2-0
Cleveland merely had to take the field to establish history as the school’s first team to appear in a state final when the Rams met Alexander Central in Game 1 on Friday.
Alexander Central overcame Cleveland pitcher Julia Wiggs’ one-hitter that was a perfect game through four innings. She had retired 12 straight batters until the Cougars’ Alexis Walter led off the fifth with a single. Kelsea Dejarnette followed with a sacrifice bunt attempt, but Wiggs’ throwing error to first base advanced courtesy runner Tara Chatham to third and Dejarnette to second.
After Wiggs got a strikeout, Mattie Stearns put down a suicide squeeze bunt. Chatham not only beat the play at the plate, Dejarnette advanced to third and Stearns was safe at first. Alexa Rash scored Dejarnette with her sacrifice fly to center field.
Cleveland tried to rally in the sixth with a leadoff single by Peyton Jenkins, but Alexander Central centerfielder Lanie Goforth ended the threat when she ran down a two-out fly ball that Anna Kate Gilchrist had slammed to right-center field. Goforth, known as a speedy base stealer, made the catch on her knees as she slid into the fence.
In the seventh, Cleveland’s Caris Allen coaxed a one-out walk, but two ground balls ended the game. Alexander Central pitcher Chesney Millsap stranded six runners while spacing out three singles and three walks.
The game might have ended in a little more 90 minutes if not for 2-hour, 35-minute rain delay. Shortly after Goforth’s dramatic catch, the tarp was rolled out to beat a heavy rain. Lightning flashes lengthened the delay as the stadium was emptied.