FOUR OAKS — It had to happen eventually.
And for Cleveland, the timing was perfect.
The Rams strung together back-to-back-to-back doubles in a two-run first inning, holding on to claim a 3-2 softball victory over county and conference rival South Johnston, beating the Trojans for the first time.
Cleveland, which is in its fourth year of operation, improved to 13-5 overall and 8-2 in Two Rivers 3A conference play, while South fell to 16-3 and 8-2 in the regular-season finale for both.
The teams split their two conference games and thus shared the regular-season conference championship. South received the top seed in the inaugural conference tournament by virtue of its 9-3 win over the Rams in their tournament game at Princeton on April 16, while Cleveland will be seeded No. 2. Both got byes through the first round of the six-team event. Whichever team does better in the tournament will have the conference’s top seed for the state playoffs.
South outhit the Rams 9-7 on its Senior Night, but Cleveland was just a bit better in the clutch.
Cleveland’s sophomore pitcher Taylor Drayton went the whole way, striking out six against one walk. South senior Lauren Higgins struck out eight against two walks.
“This is awesome,” said first-year Cleveland head coach Samantha Coats. “I’m happy for our seniors. We had heart tonight and that’s what won the game. Both teams played awesome games but I think we wanted it more.
“Taylor was really good. She got down several times in the count and worked her way back up. Everybody was hitting well, and they bunted when I asked them to. I told my team before the game that whoever scored first and made the fewest errors would win the game.”
Aaliyah Sands doubled and singled with an RBI to lead Cleveland’s offense. Kayla Allen tripled and singled for South while Dinalee Spell added a pair of singles with an RBI.
“Sometimes these things happen,” veteran South coach Mickey Bridgers said. “Cleveland’s got a good team and they’re deserving of being co-champions. Our goal was to be the outright champion, but Cleveland had another idea.
“I thought Lauren pitched well. She made good pitches, but a couple of times the location was not very good. But when you hold a good team to three runs and one is on an error, she did her job. The bottom line is we didn’t hit the ball tonight when we needed to.”
Cleveland took the lead with two out in the first as Heather McLean, Brittany Bucklin and Sands all doubled.
“This is huge,” Sands said. “We worked really hard for this game and it all paid off. (Higgins) pitched great, but we just came out ready and fixed what we did wrong the last game.”
South cut the lead to 2-1 in the fourth as Higgins led off with a double, advanced on Carolina Dorman’s bunt and scored on Spell’s grounder to short.
“I thought I pitched well overall, but I could have hit my spots a little better,” Higgins said. “The first inning was tough. Cleveland had timely hits because they came out really aggressive.”
The Rams made it 3-1 in the fifth as Becca Straka led off with a double, scoring on a throwing error from first baseman Madison Byrd following Drayton’s sacrifice bunt.
South finished the scoring in the fifth as Krista Collins hit a one-out double to left and scored on Madison Byrd’s two-out single to right.
The Trojans threatened with one out in the seventh as Alexis Massengill and Kayla Allen reached on back-to-back infield singles, but Drayton got out of the jam with a strikeout and a fly ball.
“I have been thinking about this all day,” Drayton said. “They’re a good hitting team. I knew I needed to come out hard. I was most concerned about Madison Byrd, because she’s hit me a lot.
“(Higgins) was on. We were just ready for her. This is exciting for us – winning the conference championship was one of our main goals.”