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North County softball gets seventh straight shutout, beats Leonardtown 1-0 to reach 4A state semifinals

North County pitcher Breanna Clayton, pitching against Chesapeake on May 28, had 14 strikeouts Tuesday as the Knights beat Leonardtown, 1-0, to advance to the Class 4A state semifinals.
North County pitcher Breanna Clayton, pitching against Chesapeake on May 28, had 14 strikeouts Tuesday as the Knights beat Leonardtown, 1-0, to advance to the Class 4A state semifinals. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Breanna Clayton might’ve spent pregame getting aloe vera spread over her sunburnt back, but as it it turned out it was Leonardtown that needed the burn relief after facing Clayton for seven innings on Tuesday.

In a low-hitting game, No. 2 seed North County survived and advanced to the Class 4A state semifinals by relying on its faithful ace. Clayton tallied 14 strikeouts to keep the seventh-seeded Raiders scoreless and pull out a 1-0 win in Tuesday’s quarterfinal, the Knights’ seventh consecutive shutout dating back to May 28.

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North County (15-0) has a quick turnaround as it’ll face the 2019 state champion, No. 3 seed Sherwood, on Wednesday.

That might tucker some teams out, but Clayton thinks it’ll benefit North County.

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“I think [this game] was good preparing us for what’s gonna come tomorrow,” she said. “I heard Sherwood’s a pretty good team, so it’ll be a good game.”

North County trusts its skill and one another — but a little superstition can’t hurt. The Knights kept their region title plaque in their dugout. Emma Sullivan (2-for-3) refuses to wear a different bat grip no matter how torn up it is. Clayton, and several of her teammates, wear the same eye-black and same hairstyle. The Knights give a plastic Hawaiian pig a little squeeze for luck when Linsey Voorhese is up to bat.

All the magic in the dugout wasn’t necessary for Clayton, who seemed even sharper in this outing. She said she didn’t even feel her inflamed back and legs as she sent punishing pitch after pitch down the plate.

“I’d like to say she was in the zone and was fired up and wanted to win this game,” coach Kelly Guarnieri said, “and she pitched like it.”

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The Knights rolled their previous two opponents as flat as leaves, scoring double-digit runs in playoff victories that finished in the fifth inning. Leonardtown proved tougher to crush.

Though Clayton dealt at least a strikeout per inning, the Raiders managed to get base-runners in four of them. They played smart and focused on small-ball, bunting early when they could while taking advantage of the occasional misplay with the hopes of needing just one run to win.

Facing a team capable of surviving a complete game felt necessary to the Knights. Wednesday’s battle with Sherwood will very likely go seven innings at least, too. They needed the practice.

North County struggled to get bats on Leonardtown senior Lacey Bateman’s pitches; the Raider had nine strikeouts in six innings as Knights opted for maybe too many swings rather than bunts. Swings came late on the fast stuff and early when she slowed things down. Clayton reckons the rise balls and off-speed pitches really puzzled her and her teammates, something they’ll have to work on in short order.

“Other pitchers that we’ve seen didn’t have as much movement,” Sullivan said. “This [Bateman] is the first pitcher that it wasn’t just straight fastballs.”

The Knights team that showed itself extremely capable of overwhelming opponents with their bats could hardly break through. At least, until the fourth inning.

As the fielder’s throw hunted her down, Sullivan put all her heart into reaching first base, which she did. Catcher Bella Coates clubbed a knock into right field, giving herself enough time to reach second and for Sullivan to make third.

With just an out on the board, Rebecca Gottleib had options. The outfielder’s fly-ball landed in a glove, but deep enough that Sullivan could beat the throw home for the game’s only run.

“This was a tough game. There was pressure on the defense, pressure on Bre [Clayton],” Guarnieri said. “It was a tough competition and it’s only gonna get tougher going forward.”

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