Since 2002, softball has been one of the most successful high school sports in Hanover County. Three teams have claimed state titles, the latest being Lee-Davis in 2011. Patrick Henry was state runner-up in 2012, Atlee a state quarterfinalist in 2013.
With eight returning starters and a new lease on life for the postseason, is this the year Hanover makes its mark?
Last year, the Hawks, 14-5, lost in Capital District semifinals to Lee-Davis. For two years, they’ve seen a good team lose to another good team, one win away from the Central Region tournament.
For two years, Hanover has had to watch the rest of the county teams all advance to region play, on the outside looking in. Good enough to be a regional team, mind you, but always one win short.
They won’t see the rest of the county come playoff time any longer. Add to that eight returning starters, and Hanover has loads of confidence heading into 2014.
On the mound, it’s all up to Kiandra Mitchum. The senior commit to Christopher Newport has shared the mound with the now-departed Shannon Albright. Now Mitchum knows it’s up to her, and she is ready for the challenge.
Her battery mate, senior Maura Long, is an experienced, fiery defensive field general. Other returning seniors are outfielder Jessica McLaughlin and 3B/1B Lacey Sullivan.
For all the talent the Hawks have, this is still a very young team. Eryn King is the lone junior returning starter. Kaylyn Shepherd and Mackenzie Wyatt each had breakout seasons a year ago as freshmen, and will be counted on, especially offensively. Haley Gilbert and Erin Watkins also begin their second seasons on varsity as just sophomores.
Hanover welcomes JV call-ups juniors Tabby Dabney and Kristin Wilcox, and another talented freshman duo in Erin Acors and Emma Casey.
“We are focused on conditioning, strength, and agility, working together as a team,” said new head coach Stephanie Acors.
Acors moves up from the assistant coach position to replace Brian LeTourneau, who stepped down to spend more time with his young family.
“Our pitching will be counted on greatly, with Kiandra as our number one,” Acors noted, adding the team is still determining early strengths and weaknesses thanks to all the weather disruptions during practice season.
Mitchum, Long, Shepherd and Wyatt all have what it takes to replace Albright’s very productive bat. When the postseason begins, they’ll be in the 4A classification, not 5A like the other county teams. In Conference 20, they’ll battle Glen Allen, and new rivals Midlothian, Monacan, Dinwiddie, and J.R. Tucker. If they can advance from Conference 20 into the 4A South Regionals come late May, there’s no reason to believe the 2014 Hawks can’t experience a special season.
In 2013, the Patriots, 18-3, lost to Lee-Davis in Central Region Quarterfinals. A year ago, there was so much change, or so it seemed, with Patrick Henry softball. Five seniors from a state runner-up team were gone. Who would pitch? Where would the offense come from?
And who is this young lady now in the third base coaching box?
A year later, there are plenty of answers and a resume to prove it.
Candace Whittemore exploded onto the pitching scene, starting each game for the 18-3 Patriots, proving she belonged in the Hanover County pitching pantheon. She returns with her partner behind the plate, James Madison softball commit Ashley Samuels.
Samuels leads the offensive charge as well, with fellow future Duke, junior shortstop Paige Mitchell. Mitchell has been such an integral part of the Patriots’ defense for so long, it’s hard to believe she’s not a senior. Mitchell’s grand slam was part of a 10-run sixth inning that led Patrick Henry to a 15-1 win in a scrimmage with Caroline Tuesday afternoon.
Also returning from the final Colonial District champions are infielders Brooke Flexon and Beth Ford, both juniors, and outfielders Kendall Thomas (a senior, three-year starter), Briana Woody and Taylor Prokopis. Abby Clement and Alex Reed look to expand their roles.
And there are promising newcomers arriving from a successful JV team, including sophomore infielder Katie Dodson, juniors Taylor Adams and Mishala Terrell, and freshman Grayson Radcliffe.
Whittemore will likely inhabit the circle every game again, so her health is of utmost importance. But head coach Shelby Webb, already a proven coaching commodity after her debut last season, is very specific about how her team will operate in order to be successful once again.
“Everyone has to play their part in order for anything to be great. I am counting on my large number of returnees who have worked with a purpose in the off-season to set us off on the right foot,” Webb said. “I am blessed to have a group that wants to work hard, wants to win, so hopefully that leadership and desire will transfer to game play.”
In their new life in the 5A North Region, in Conference 16, there are plenty of unknowns. The Patriots won’t see Albemarle, Halifax, or Orange before postseason tournament play in May, so wins over old Colonial District foes that line their schedule are critically important in building the best winning percentage possible for playoff seeding.
The Patriots open their 2014 season at J.R. Tucker Tuesday night at 6 p.m.
The Raiders, 18-4, lost to Great Bridge in the Group AAA State Quarterfinals last season. They began 17-1, but finished 1-3 in the critical postseason. After taking the final Capital District regular season title, they lost the District and Central Region tournaments.
Now the Raiders come back with seven of nine starters. But, early on, the two who are gone will cast a long shadow.
The $64,000 question for Atlee all off-season has been, “Who replaces Jessica Holte at pitcher?” Holte leaves a big void, having become the first pitcher in University of Maryland at Baltimore County history to go 6-0 in her first six starts as a freshman. Who mans the circle?
Please welcome sophomore Laura Kate Moss and freshman Peyton St. George. Both will get their opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the title of Atlee starting pitcher. But head coach John Earley is looking for far more than that.
“My off-season priority was to find out who was going to take over the leadership roles since we lost Holte and (Taylor) Sutherland,” Earley explained.
Sutherland, a diminutive and feisty defensive wall at shortstop, was also part of the glue that held the Raiders together. She is now playing at Roanoke College.
As for the returning seven, they are led in the infield by impressive sophomore third baseman Raine Wilson, who’s ready for a breakout year offensively, power hitting first baseman Delani Ferrar and veteran senior catcher Cameron Hall.
Add to them the experience of right fielder Mattie Fitzgerald, center fielder Shelby Hill, outfielders Blair Jones and Malorie Fodill and second baseman Annamarie Worley, and the Raiders are unbelievably rich in talent, both offensively and defensively.
Riley Satterwhite and Coral Throckmorton return and are joined by freshman shortstop/outfielder Casey Barrett.
“I believe our biggest strength will be experience, both with defense and facing good pitching,” Earley said. “The ‘X factor’ for us is how we will approach every game since they are all important, and not just district games like the past.”
Earley’s grasp on the schedule and how it plays into postseason seeding and positioning cannot be understated. For any team, a loss in late March could cost them a home game come Conference Tournament time, even against a non-conference foe.
And with Atlee residing in Conference 11 along with Lee-Davis, Deep Run, Mills Godwin and Hermitage, there will be no easy road back to regional play, this time in 5A South.
It will be the potent hitting that dots the Atlee lineup coupled with well-played defense that will help the Raiders get out of the gate strong as their new pitchers get their baptism by fire into varsity softball.
Atlee begins Tuesday at Clover Hill, then welcomes Patrick Henry next Thursday, and new Conference 11 foes Deep Run and Hermitage March 24 and 27. If the Raiders find solid pitching in time for the stretch run, their deep experience could position them for yet another long post-season odyssey.
The Confederates come off an 18-5 season, losing to Cosby in last year’s Central Region Semifinals. With the Confederates, as it is with Hanover and Patrick Henry, it begins in the circle, as Radford University commit Lauren McIntyre, still just a junior, begins her third full season as starter.
Her experience is immeasurable when it comes to leadership and ability late in the game. She will be joined in the battery by Brooke Martin, who moves into the catcher position to replace the now graduated Haleigh Cottrell.
The Stonebreaker sisters return, as senior Kinsee anchors the right side of the infield at second base, while sophomore Kylie will see time in left field and can also spell McIntyre if necessary. Outfield staples, seniors Becca Fields and Victoria Houff also return.
Among the newcomers for Lee-Davis are two freshman you should see early in the season: Ella Alvis, who can man either third base or shortstop, and Elizabeth Hudson, the possible answer at first base, when the Confederates have to replace Amy Wingfield, now contributing nicely as a freshman at Wingate University.
“Our strengths are leadership, work ethic, and fundamentals,” Lee-Davis head coach Jackie Davis said. “But our weakness is youth.”
Sometimes though, it’s a good thing to have a talented group of young players who go out and play, execute and perform, not knowing they’re not supposed to be threats to win a Conference, and battle for a region title.
Many will look at Lee-Davis’ roster this season and see the glass half-empty, question lack of experience in some areas, and not the possible lack of depth.
Others will look at it half-full, careful to remind themselves how, in a similar depth situation last year, the Confederates rolled through the Capital District Tournament and finished a game short of a state tourney berth for the second straight season.
Lee-Davis may just fly under the radar, and become that team no one wants to face in the Conference 11 tournament, and if that’s the case, it’ll be just fine by them.
They begin their season next Thursday at new Conference 11 rival Douglas Freeman before hosting Matoaca next Friday.