BY Rob Witham
The 2010’s have truly been the golden age of high school softball in Hanover County.
Lee-Davis made the state championship in 2010, then won it in 2011. Patrick Henry lost a ten-inning state title game thriller the next year and returned to state play two years later. Over the past three seasons, not one but two county teams have not only qualified for the four-team state tournament format.
Each year, the two rivals faced each other, including in last year’s Virginia High School League (VHSL) Group 5A Final, where Atlee won their third consecutive state title with a 1-0 victory over Lee-Davis.
Now, 2018 beckons new questions and new opportunities. Who takes over in the circle for Atlee as Peyton St. George now pitches at Duke? Does Lee-Davis bring enough firepower back for another run at the state tournament? At Hanover, will a youth movement return the Hawks to former glory? And, at Patrick Henry, an experienced squad has built the foundation to attempt to do what other county teams have done, but they have not: win a state championship.
The Patriots (20-4 in 2017) move down to Class 4, Region B, joining Hanover. Some say it provides an easier opportunity for Patrick Henry to move forward come postseason time. But this team, under first-year head coach and former assistant Lance LeStourgeon, could contend at any level.
They lost Grayson Radcliffe, now at Marshall, as well as Taylor McLarn, Jenna Pitts and Hannah Beverely. The returnees, though, begin with pitcher Charlotte Mitchell, a two-year starter, and just a junior. She’ll anchor a group that has the potential, along with junior Olivia Sewell and freshman Riley Dull, to be extremely potent.
“This season will feature a new coaching staff with a new outlook and game plan. As a team and program, we are quickly adapting to these changes and working hard to reap all of the benefits”, LeStourgeon noted. “We will need to fill Grayson’s spot, not only as a player, but also as a vocal team leader.”
Autumn Slemaker has been a successful leadoff hitter, and moves from center field to shortstop defensively to replace Radcliffe. LeStourgeon may only have to look to third place as Grayson’s younger sister Saxon returns for her second year, just a sophomore. Hailey Thomas brings quiet confidence and all-around good play at first, while fellow senior Delaney Nuckols is back at second base.
Alexa Prokopis and Jamie Hughes patrol the outfield, and LeStourgeon will need to replace Slemaker in center. Blair Rhodes and Emma Keys are new to varsity, and, after a year’s absence, junior Lindsey Cooper returns. The Patriots begin play Tuesday hosting one of the surprise teams from those now in Region 4B in 2017, Midlothian.
Also in Region 4B is Hanover, ready to bounce back after an up and down 2017. Second-year head coach Becca Mayhew has a ton of returning experience, a group filled with hunger to improve on a 10-11 record, led by seniors Lauren Hughes and Jenna Ways. Ellen Palya returns in the circle, joined by Savannah Thorne. Rylan Hubbard and Jessica Russell patrol the outfield, while Leslie Currie and Addison Walter return with multiple-position versatility defensively.
The Hawks also have a huge freshman class coming in that could help propel Hanover back to prominence. Julia Mardigian could start at shortstop, Jacqueline Feild, Reagan Patrick and Alyssa Broaddus all can play outfield, while Bella Pastore, Faith Scott and Megan Harmon are all ready to contribute.
“We are optimistic after seeing the passion and drive from our current senior class,” Mayhew said. “The keys for us this year are veteran leadership and communication. We rely heavily on our three returning seniors, Ways, Hughes, and Kayley Turner.”
Hanover gets an early test, starting the season Tuesday hosting the team that ended their season in the former Conference 20 Tournament last May, the Dinwiddie Generals.
With the latest VHSL shuffling, ending the conference experiment after four years, Atlee moves back locally in postseason play in the new Class 5, Region B, joining Lee-Davis and thirteen other Richmond area teams including hopefuls Prince George, Matoaca and Glen Allen.
While Lee-Davis (21-4, Group 5A State Runner-Up in 2017) lost the right side of the infield, their starting pitcher and a state all-star center fielder, there’s an impressive nucleus back for head coach Jackie Davis, now in her 19th season in Mechanicsville.
It all starts behind the plate with catcher Logan Hawker, a defensive standout who brings one of the best power bats in Virginia to the middle of the Confederate lineup. Outfielder Sydney Guess and shortstop Lauren Taylor provide experience, defensive prowess and critical offense, while Jesse Gentry will take over at first base.
Savanah Henley, who saw several good opportunities in the circle, becomes the pitching anchor for Lee-Davis.
“Hitting her spots and movement will be keys to her success,” Davis noted. “We need solid defensive play, we need to hit one through nine, and then be able to push runs across when in scoring position.”
Look for Katie Bareford, Sierra Talley, McKenna Mehlbrech and senior third baseman Hayli Wagner to be key components to Lee-Davis success. They begin the season at home to Hermitage on Wednesday.
Then there’s Atlee, the three-time defending state champions who went 25-1 last year and want no excuses as they begin another title quest, but this year with more question marks than usual, beginning with who takes over in the circle.
“Rachel Davis is ready to take the lead in the circle,” says Atlee head coach Tom McIntyre, now in his third campaign. “She had quality exposure last season, including two no-hit innings in the state semifinal game.”
Not only do the Raiders replace a pitcher, but a catcher, and all-state honorees at shortstop and center field. The task of building another title contender begins with returning senior second baseman Jordan Durbin, who will anchor defensively, in the middle of the lineup, and with leadership.
Victoria Bernardini and Emily Friel return in the infield, while Sydney Kuester and April Hooper will be counted on in the outfield. Several players will see roles greatly increase, from utility players Alyssa Bernardini, Kayla Maxson and Madi LaFemina to junior catcher Jordan Murry.
And there is an impressive group of freshman coming in at Raider Nation, beginning with Kelly Ayer, and joined by Kara Hammock, Riley Smith, McKenna Jones and Brooke O’Donnell.
For McIntyre, the goals this year, as has been the last two under his leadership, are simple.
“Do your job!”, McIntyre exclaimed as plainly this year as in the past. “Doing your job may look different for each player but ends with one goal. Atlee softball has established a reputation of excellence and that has not changed. And our second goal, hit dingers.”
The new era of Atlee softball is scheduled to first take the field on Monday when they travel to Chesterfield to take on Clover Hill at 4:30pm.