RED SPRINGS — William Deese is only in his second year as the Purnell Swett softball coach but he knows that getting to the championship game of the Robeson County Slugfest isn’t an easy task.
“It’s never been an easy road,” Deese said. “From the years I was coaching baseball, it’s never been an easy road. Everyone comes in and plays hard going into Easter time.”
Yet in the short history of the softball tournament, which started in 2010, the Rams have been the constant. They won the tournament in its first two years, beating Lumberton in the inaugural tourney in 2010 and West Bladen in 2011, and placed second to West Bladen in both 2012 and 2013.
It’s a streak the Rams (6-9) look to continue for a fifth year when the Slugfest starts play today at Clayson Park in Red Springs.
“It would really make our senior year if we won the championship,” said Reagan Cummings, who is one of the team’s seven seniors.
The Rams enter the tournament as the second seed and will play host Red Springs in the nightcap at 7 p.m. West Bladen, which is seeking its third straight Slugfest title, is the top seed.
For the Rams, it’s not merely a matter of continually being among the top teams in the region.
The 2012 team finished the season 19-6 but last year’s team, which is the core of this year’s squad, went 5-18 with two of those wins coming at Slugfest.
“I think a lot of people underestimate our team going into Slugfest,” said Purnell Swett senior Mikala Lowry. “(It makes us) want to win more and want to play as a team more.”
Deese said last year’s run was based on momentum.
Held in late March, the Rams picked up their first win of the year four days before the tournament started. The Rams got out hit at times, but made up for it with aggressive work on the basepaths as pitcher Sequoia Locklear kept her cool under pressure.
“It’s a big thing for us because it’s a county thing, but it’s about getting rolling at the right time,” he said.
The Rams enter this year better than last year’s team did, especially in conference play, where they’ve won double the games they did last year, and remain in contention for a playoff spot. They enter the tournament having lost two in a row and are coming off a 12-0 loss to undefeated Richmond.
“We’ve had a couple of down games and I hope we do well at the Slugfest to get us folling for the last few games of the season,” Deese said. “We’ve been up and down, we’ve fought through injuries but we’ve played better. We’ve been in more games than not. I’m hoping they’ll just pull it all together and get hot again at that time.”
What’s expected is a challenge all the way through. Deese has urged his team not to underestimate the young Red Devils in the first round.
“Red Springs is a good team. They’ve gotten better since last year and they’re playing well too,” he said.
If the Rams make it through, they could play rival and third-seeded Lumberton, who has No. 6 Fairmont in the first round. If the rivalry game happens, it will be the third time the two have met in the Slugfest.
Swett beat the Pirates 11-1 in the inaugural championship game and last year won 9-4 in the semifinal round, despite losing both conference matchups. The teams have played once this season, a 10-3 win for the Pirates.
“We owe them one,” Lowry said.
Should the matchup happen, Cummings is optimistic.
“We’re coming for Lumberton. We’re coming hard,” she said. “Watch out Lumberton.”
She and Lowry laughed momentarily then she added a few final words.
“We own them.”
Reach Scott Schlaufman at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @ScottySchlauf.
ROBESON COUNTY SLUGFEST SCHEDULE
Softball (Saturday’s games at Clayson Park, Red Springs)
No. 4 Terry Sanford vs. No. 5 South Robeson, 10 a.m.
No. 1 West Bladen vs. No. 8 St. Pauls, 1 p.m.
No. 3 Lumberton vs. No. 6 Fairmont, 4
No. 2 Purnell Swett vs. No. 7 Red Springs, 7