FOUR OAKS — If there’s a better 3A softball conference than the Two Rivers 3A Conference, those coaches might need to see some solid proof first.
For, after two heart-pounding and competitive semifinal games, held Thursday night at South Johnston High School, the evidence was there to see for all who attended that the top four ball clubs in the Two Rivers are of high quality.
Not to mention, great performances.
Cleveland rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to scratch out a 3-2 victory over Erwin Triton while, in the nightcap, South Johnston starting pitcher Lauren Higgins tossed a no-hitter to hold back Corinth Holders 4-0.
Late inning fireworks
Through six-and-a-half-innings in the semifinal contest between No. 2 seed Cleveland and No. 3 seed Triton, pitching and defense ruled.
The final inning-and-a-half was quite a different story.
Cleveland broke Triton starting pitcher Kayla Baker’s no-hit bid in the bottom of the sixth inning with two hits, the second of which being an RBI single from Maura Mangum that scored Jodi Morgan and gave the Rams the 1-0 lead.
Triton (14-8) responded, however, in the top of the seventh with a Kayce Graves RBI double and then took the 2-1 lead when pinch hitter Annie Tyndall’s infield single scored Gracey Spivey from third base.
Cleveland appeared to be unfazed and immediately applied the pressure in its last at bat of the game.
Brittany Bucklin legged out an infield single to start the Cleveland half of the seventh and the Rams loaded the bases with one out after a pair of infield bunt singles from Alliyah Sands and Alexis Ivey.
Jodi Morgan’s hard grounder up the middle handcuffed Baker, which allowed Bucklin to trot home to tie the game. Becca Straka followed suit with a hard hit ball toward second base that Triton shortstop Emma Thomas could only knock down but could not make a play on and Sands crossed home plate for the winning run.
“My nerves were shot…they kind of scared me to death,” Cleveland coach Samantha Coats said, referring to her team’s late game heroics. “I think that they just like to wait until the end to do all of their hitting and scoring and I’m not sure why.”
Both starters—Baker for Triton and Taylor Drayton for Cleveland—were on top of their game for much of the contest.
Baker allowed just the three runs on five hits, three of which never left the infield, and struck out three while walking none.
Drayton was equally tough for Cleveland (14-5). She retired 10 consecutive batters heading into the seventh inning and was able to bounce back after the Hawks clawed out two runs to retire Alexis Hobson with two runners in scoring position to keep the game at a one-run difference.
“She did awesome; she worked through everything,” Coats said of her sophomore pitcher. “She stays totally relaxed and keeps her head together and she always comes out of it.”
Drayton allowed just three hits and struck out five batters for the game.
Higgins dominant for Trojans
Corinth Holders, the league’s No. 4 seed, entered its game against No. 1 seed South Johnston knowing it needed to win the tournament to advance to the state 3A playoffs.
The Pirates (9-12) also entered the contest having hit the ball well in their past several outings in winning six of their last 10 games.
South Johnston senior starting pitcher Lauren Higgins, bouncing back after what she described as a disappointing performance in her last start, proved to be too strong as she shut down Corinth Holders and tossed the complete game no-hitter.
“The last couple weeks, they had actually come together as a team,” Corinth Holders coach Jessica Potter said. “The bats came alive the last week or so and we were just hitting the mess out of the ball but we couldn’t tonight.”
Higgins retired the first 11 batters she faced before issuing a walk. Another walk and a fielding error in the top of the sixth inning led to the only trouble the three-year varsity-starting pitcher found.
Higgins responded by retiring the final two batters of the inning, stranding two key Pirate runners.
Higgins struck out nine batters for the game while issuing just the two walks.
“She has been an amazing player for four years,” South Johnston coach Mickey Bridgers said. “She’s improved and is a lot tougher mentally this year than she was in the previous years and I thought that was pretty obvious tonight.
“She really performed like a champion tonight.”
With the Pirates’ bats stymied, the Trojans were able to generate just enough offense off of Corinth Holders’ starter Kayla Meares.
Kayla Allen doubled home Alexis Massengill in the bottom of the first inning and also scored herself as she was able to take third base and then home after a Corinth Holders error.
RBI singles from Massengill and Caroline Dorman in the third accounted for the rest of the offense for South Johnston.
Meares battled all night long to keep her team in the game and allowed the four runs on eight hits. She struck out three.
For the Pirates, a core senior group – Brandy Davis, Meares, Kayla Narron and Kris Neal—played its last game but not before having left a lasting impression and impact for those to follow their footsteps.
“They’re a great group of dedicated girls,” Potter said. “They’ll be missed.”
Collins and Madison Byrd led the Trojans with two hits apiece.
Bridgers echoed the sentiments of his fellow coaches after a day of great competition.
“The conference is very good,” said Bridgers. “It says a lot about the conference but it also says a lot about the coaches and the players that play in the conference.”