CLAYTON — Add together a dominant pitching performance with one big swing of the bat, and it was all Cleveland needed for a huge softball victory on Tuesday night.
Taylor Drayton retired the last 19 batters of the game in a two-hitter, leading Cleveland to a 2-1 win over visiting Western Alamance in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs.
Brittany Bucklin’s fifth homer of the season, a two-run shot in the third inning that scored fellow senior Heather McLean, provided all the scoring for Cleveland (17-6).
Cleveland, which is in its fourth year as a school, is in the fourth round of the playoffs for the first time in Samantha Coats’ first season at the helm.
“Taylor never lets us down, and she’s always on her game,” Coats said. “I told them at the beginning of the game it would be decided by who had the most heart and who was there mentally. Some teams that get behind in a game like this just roll over, but we didn’t.
“I have a lot of girls who love the game and want to be here and are awesome softball players. It’s not me.”
The Warriors (14-8) scored their run in the first as Christina Walker led off with an infield hit and scored on Peyton Hyler’s one-out single to center.
But when catcher Maura Witzel walked with two outs in the frame, courtesy runner Ciara Humphrey became the Warriors’ last baserunner of the night.
Western’s starter Courtney Rudd was solid throughout, allowing just four Cleveland hits while striking out eight against just one walk.
“I don’t think we were ready right away after the bus ride,” first-year Western coach Samantha Seligman said. “Some of our girls had played travel ball against (Drayton), but every game is different.
“We had some highs and some lows, and taking this team to the third round was a great experience for them.”
After the visitors got their run in the first, Drayton got into a groove that couldn’t be slowed. She never had a three-ball count after the first inning, and finished with nine strikeouts against the one walk while her fielders were perfect for the final six innings.
“I got a little bit tense after they scored,” said Drayton, who went 1-for-3 at the plate with an infield hit to lead off the Rams’ first. “But I just trusted my defense. I know when we’re deep in the playoffs teams are going to be able to hit me, and my defense had my back tonight.
“This is a huge accomplishment. We’ve worked really hard to get here.”
Bucklin, a senior who will play for Meredith next season, said the Rams were under a little pressure after giving up the early run but she never thought the homer would decide the game.
“It was a high, inside fastball,” the second baseman said. “I was expecting outside, but I just fixed my hands and went with it.
“We’re pretty good at coming back most of the time. Being behind one or two runs early in the game isn’t a problem.”
McLean, who had a single and a steal, was the only player in the game to reach safely in each plate appearance as the Warriors let her on twice with infield errors.
“This is the greatest accomplishment of our four years,” said McLean, who will play for Peace next season. “I just want us to keep playing relaxed and stay ready to win.
“I think this really shows our passion and our love for the game, and I’m really happy we’ve been able to do this for our coach in her first year.”